Sun Valley Film Fest 2016: ‘The Confirmation’ a funny, forgettable father-son fable

The fifth annual Sun Valley Film Festival returns March 2-March 6 in Ketchum, Idaho, featuring over 60 narrative films and documentaries, as well as special guests Oliver Stone, Mark Duplass, Bruce Dern and Amy Smart, and musical guests The Joy Formidable and Thunderpussy. Films are shown at local venues including the Sun Valley Opera House, Magic Lantern Cinemas, and NexStage Theatre in a celebration of film and storytelling.

The Confirmation
Written and directed by Bob Nelson
USA, 2016

The Confirmation marks the feature-length directing debut of Bob Nelson, best known for his Academy-Award nominated screenplay for 2013’s Nebraska. This lovely but forgettable slice-of-life drama shifts from quietly devastating to redemptively hopeful over the course of its one and a half hours. This father-son tale stars a roster of familiar faces, including Clive Owen, Mario Bello, Patton Oswalt, and Matthew Modine. It’s rising young star Jaeden Lieberher (St. Vincent), who shines here. however, delivering every bit the gravitas and weight of his famous, seasoned onscreen father, and anchoring the film.

The title is slightly misleading, since this is by no means a film about religion. However, it does find plenty of unexpected humor to mine in the experiences of a young boy getting a hefty dose of Catholicism in just a few days. The deadpan humor of eight-year-old Anthony being sincerely unable to come up with any sins to confess, asking why he would ever lie, and what sexual thoughts are, and the priest’s corresponding frustration, is hilarious and perfectly delivered. In scenes like these, and thoughtful father-son conversations, the film sparks the right tonal note of deftly undercutting some of the more potentially nonsensical traditions of Catholicism, while also granting it a dignity.

Mostly, however, the film tracks two days in the life of a deadbeat father and his son, through various misadventures that increasingly border on the illegal. Walt (Clive Owen) is a carpenter near the end of his rope, and desperate for a job. His ex-wife Bonnie (Mario Bello) , Anthony’s mother, has re-married, and informed Walt that unless he can quit alcohol, she will withdraw visitation rights for Anthony. Over the course of the weekend, as he is in charge of Anthony while Bonnie and her husband are on a retreat, Walt struggles with recent sobriety. The film unshrinkingly portrays the looming sense of danger and dread that plagues anyone close to an alcoholic, and it’s particularly vivid and effective through the eyes of a young boy. At times, the film is very, very grim indeed.

It’s not in its portrayals of alcoholism where the film shines – the theme and treatment of an alcoholic father and his son’s reaction to is a very cliched one, particularly for indie films, and The Confirmation doesn’t find a way to make it new. More interesting is the pair’s search for Walt’s specialized carpentry tools, which are stolen from his truck near the beginning of the film. Requiring them for a job he has just landed, Walt and Anthony go on a quest to find the thief and retrieve the tools, which takes them through a string of unsavory and/or wacky suspects. These confrontations feature surprising twists and, frequently, very funny dialogue.

While never quite going beyond the usual tropes of a father-son love story (because this is a love story) and a protagonist’s struggle with alcoholism, The Confirmation is occasionally ingenious its its treatment of the criminal class, and clever dialogue peppers with film with side-splitting laughs.

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