The name Bob Nelson may not ring any bells (or too many since it sounds so common), but his sardonic yet genuine look at Midwestern culture for Alexander Payne's Nebraska earned a screenwriting Oscar nomination. In making a transition to directing with The Confirmation, Nelson attempts and largely succeeds in capturing that same salt-of-the-earth feel, using humor and sweetness to explore flyover themes of faith, fatherhood, and the value of a solid trade.
While the film is bookended by a pair of confessionals, The Confirmation isn't full of the religious brow beating that too many faith based films traffic in. The confessor is 8-year-old Anthony (Jaeden Lieberher), who in the beginning can barely muster up anything sinful to admit to, which should be impossible for your typical kid. That's all about to change, however, thanks to a raucous, dangerous weekend spent with his struggling, deadbeat dad Walt (Clive Owen), who has been granted visitation by his ex-wife (Maria Bello) so she can attend a Catholic retreat of some kind. Walt's having a rough go of it. Not only is he barely scraping by financially, but he's an alcoholic attempting to stay dry for his son, who idolizes his father despite his obvious flaws. He's even willing to lie about the music he likes just to be more like Walt, because every boy wants their father's respect.
Walt's a carpenter, the kind of skilled trade that requires experience and technical precision, but in today's world there isn't a ton of demand. So when his precious and very expensive tools are stolen before a lucrative (anything that pays is lucrative in this rundown town) job on Monday, it sends Walt and Anthony on a wild goose chase full of seedy bars, pawn shops, questionable yet colorful citizens, and moral compromises.
It's in those compromises where The Confirmation makes simple yet honest observations about finding one's own path. If that path leads to a place of spiritual devotion, then so be it. Walt, given orders to make sure Anthony attends church on Sunday, tells the boy he has to go and keep going as long as his mother wants him to. But then when he's grown he can figure out what he really wants to do. That's not exactly the message you're going to find in something like Heaven is for Real or anything with Kirk Cameron, nor do we get that moment where the agnostic Walt suddenly realizes that the one thing he's been missing is a relationship with G-O-D.
Instead, the centerpiece relationship is that of father and son, with Walt teaching Anthony the value of a good skill, as well as being true to oneself. The irony is that sometimes being true to oneself means telling the occasional lie.....or breaking into the occasional house....or committing the occasional theft. Yeah, there are a lot of questionable things that Walt teaches Anthony along the way, but they are part of the boy's journey into becoming a man.
There does come a point where Walt's mentorship begins to feel a little familiar, like in Lieberher's previous film, the Bill Murray comedy St. Vincent. Interestingly, Lieberher, a future talent to be sure, features in this week's sci-fi drama, Midnight Special, which also deals with an unusual father/son bond. He holds his own well opposite Owen, delivering a thoughtful performance as a boy soaking up all of the knowledge his father has to offer. Owen struggles a little bit early on in depicting Walt's personal demons; twitching and jittering like a graduate from the Nicolas Cage School of Overacting. But he settles in eventually, largely due to Lieberher's help, showing that combination of rugged toughness and vulnerability we are accustomed to seeing in action flicks. As a director, Nelson commands strong turns from his leads and a supporting cast led by Patton Oswalt, Robert Forster, and Tim Blake Nelson, each playing quirky characters in dire straits of their own. However, he couldn't have chosen a less enjoyable locale or less stimulating visual palette. While in full color the dank, cloudy skies and shabby buildings are somehow more bleak than Nebraska, which was in black & white and featured nothing but cornfields.
The Confirmation is a simple, admirable film; quiet and well told with a minimum of flash. That lack of melodrama leads to a few dry spells as Nelson's deadpan sense of humor doesn't always connect. But the film's greatest strength, beyond Owen and Lieberher's boundless chemistry, is that it should appeal to more than just churchgoers.
Rating: 3 out of 5