Here's a minor miracle. From tiny Lighthouse Pictures, which specializes in Hallmark Channel originals with Christmas in the title, comes Bob Nelson's The Confirmation, a bittersweet comedy about family, faith and a young boy saving up all his minor sins so he'll have something to dish at confession. The surprise? The movie's not just good but moving, funny and true to the way people actually live in hard-times America. (Lighthouse is releasing the film; Bungalow Media + Entertainment produced it.)
While not explicitly pitched to the church audience that thronged to Heaven Is for Real, The Confirmation — about a divorced alcoholic's misadventures when trusted to care for his son for a weekend — is from title to trailer faith crowd–accessible. (They might bristle at the occasional goddamn.) But it has none of the pious stiffness of onscreen devotionals, and it never lies about how belief actually works: As young Anthony (Jaeden Lieberher) prays, and small crises pile up, God never steps in to set everything right.
Clive Owen, playing a woozy agnostic from Raymond Carver's world rather than Thomas Kinkade's, is spared the conversion scene you might dread. Instead, his Walt tells Anthony, with warm matter-of-factness, that the kid needs to go to church and get confirmed as his mother says to — but then figure it all out for himself. Nelson's film never pushes faith on us, but it also never lampoons it, and even proves attentive to the comfort and meaning that belief can offer.
It's even more attentive to the pleasures of minor lawbreaking and PG-13 swearing. Nelson wrote Nebraska, his first produced screenplay; The Confirmation is the first he's directed. Both share episodic quest structures, escalating comic danger and delight in the deadpan flatness of much rural white American speech. Like Alexander Payne's film, The Confirmation is rich with epigrammatic chatter: Walt's fumbling “I don't drink anymore, and even when I do, it's not that much” could be the chorus of a country-radio hit. (Owen gets that line out as if he doesn't know if it's funny or sad.) Or this, spoken by a lesser father to his yard full of hellraisers: “How many times do I have to tell you guys that these guns I give you are not playthings?”
Nelson makes sweet what Payne made sour. The down-and-out Washingtonians of The Confirmation aren't cruel galoots like Payne's Nebraskans. And whereas Nebraska's precise compositions emphasized disconnectedness in an indifferent world, The Confirmation is loose and shaggy, sometimes shot on handheld cameras, open to possibilities — these characters aren't locked into their fates.
The story has Walt and son setting out to recover a box of tools stolen from Walt's truck, and the suspects turn out to be more desperate than he is. Unemployed and locked out of his own house, Walt needs the tools to work a job starting Monday and then start to square his debts; the culprits, though, face circumstances so sorry that Walt, a carpenter, is inspired to turn the other cheek. Owen underplays this confrontation, a commanding actor letting himself be quietly rattled, and the scene has a clarifying, unnerving power. Everything could always be worse.
Set in the streets and yards of an older suburb of Washington state, The Confirmation plays, at its best, like a dispatch from rural America as it actually is: underemployed, sometimes hostile to strangers, sympathetic if not actually obedient to the church and more multicultural than the media usually depicts. The look is often drab by design, drizzly and gray, as unfussy as the jeans and flannels Owen is frumped into. The scenario owes something to De Sica's Bicycle Thieves, of course, but Nelson's milieu is stripped of sublimity, his tone varies with less certainty and he favors a sort of recession slapstick over a worker's tragedy.
He's also generous to a fault with his cast. While Walt bumbles along somewhat passively, schlepping a jar of change to Coinstar and trying to embody good fatherhood, The Confirmation's rhythms feel dictated by whichever welcome, recognizable actor has turned up for a couple of scenes. Robert Forster, Tim Blake Nelson, Matthew Modine and Patton Oswalt (as a cheery stoner who wears a sweater with track pants and leaves comments on Stormfront.org): The film benefits so much from its who's-next energy that a second-act sleepover — in which Walt shudders and hallucinates from alcohol withdrawal — stops it cold.
In that moment, Owen is not given enough to play. Usually, though, the film's power lies in Walt's response to the locals who help or hinder his quest. His eyes measure each character, each situation, and we see how he finds almost everyone wanting, especially himself. The exception, of course, is Anthony. Nelson coaxes from adolescent Lieberher (St. Vincent) a performance of subtle, naturalistic strength. Even if The Confirmation chose at its end to insist that heaven is real, these two performers could almost sell it.