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‘The Good Catholic’ tackles challenging premise with honesty

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“This isn’t magic, nor do we have some privileged access to God,” explains wise, seasoned priest Father Victor of the calling to priesthood to fresh-out-of-the-seminary priest Father Daniel in the new film “The Good Catholic,” which was released nationwide earlier this month. “We are men who have chosen to serve.”

Therein lies the film’s thesis statement: the clerical collar isn’t a shield that deflects the everyday challenges and inherent struggles of being human, least of all, as Father Daniel (relative newcomer Zachary Spicer) soon learns, doubt.

In Father Daniel’s case, his nagging, subconscious apprehensions that priesthood is his true calling are pushed to the forefront of his conscience when his Indiana-area parish’s confessional serves as the unlikeliest of meet-cute venues between him and magnetic musician/barista Jane (Wrenn Schmidt).

She’s ardently non-Catholic, but has just been diagnosed with cancer and is searching for answers. Over a series of amicable conversations with the refreshingly honest Jane, it becomes clear to Father Daniel that, on the heels of his father’s tragic passing, he’s just as desperate for answers of his own.

Though Father Daniel’s relationship with Jane is strictly platonic, it becomes of great concern to the parish’s meticulous, by-the-book head pastor Father Victor (a delightfully nuanced Danny Glover), who lives in the parish rectory with Father Daniel and the lighthearted, fast food-munching, Hoosier basketball-loving Franciscan friar Ollie (John C. McGinley, who provides much of the film’s comic relief).

Father Victor fears that Father Daniel’s newfound friendship with Jane is causing him to lose track of his priestly vows. And the more Father Daniel and Jane open up to each other, the more Father Daniel realizes that Father Victor’s concerns aren’t totally unfounded, and that his moments with Jane — not his moments on the altar — are when he most feels God’s presence.

If there’s anyone who knows about subject matter of this nature, it’s the film’s writer/director Paul Shoulberg, whose father first met his mother when he was a priest and she was a nun. It’s tremendously clear to anyone who watches the film that depicting Father Daniel’s inner conflict in a genuine, three-dimensional manner is of great importance to Shoulberg, and his efforts really pay off. A lesser film may have presented Jane as an alluring, oversexed siren, Father Victor as a cold, Old Testament-spewing curmudgeon and Father Daniel as a slave to lust, all en route to trodding tired ground. None of that is the case here.

Instead, Shoulberg’s script walks a tightrope about as gracefully as possible. Not to say that the script never falters; there are a few attempts at humor that fall flat and, more crucially, a few derivative, misguided scenes that don’t ring entirely true. But despite its imperfections, “The Good Catholic” remains truly interesting throughout thanks to Shoulberg’s smartly drawn, humane characters and the talents of the performers bringing them to life.

Undoubtedly, “The Good Catholic” is Spicer’s show. He’s the perfect actor for this role. He succeeds in protecting the character of Father Daniel from becoming a cliché, imbuing him with an earnest desire to find God and a sympathetic frustration with his struggles with the priesthood.

And his rapport with Schmidt is fantastic. Both actors seem acutely aware that, in depicting the relationship between Father Daniel and Jane, a small misstep in either direction could render disastrous results. If the relationship becomes a touch too lusty, the film surrenders its originality, but if the relationship is totally bereft of any physical attraction, the film becomes harmless fluff. Impressively, Spicer and Schmidt steer the relationship clear of any choppy waters.

Additionally, both Glover and McGinley shine in their supporting roles. Like Spicer and Schmidt with their respective starring roles, Glover seems to value the fact that Father Victor has to be strict but also understanding, to prevent the character from becoming a holier-than-thou cliché. By navigating this fine line, Glover helps deliver some of the film’s most tense moments, and also some of its most poignant. As for McGinley, he proves yet again his unique talent for playing characters who are jokey, yet disarmingly compassionate when need be.

Just a few weeks removed from its theatrical release, “The Good Catholic” (which is rated PG-13) is already tough to find in local cinemas, but the movie is available for on-demand rental online via Amazon Video, iTunes, YouTube, Vudu, Fandango Now and Google Play. I believe that most anyone, Catholic or not, who watches the film will be pleasantly surprised to find “The Good Catholic” to be a tightly executed, fascinating watch.

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