Anthony (Jaedan Lieberher) kneels in the church confessional – but he has no sins to confess to the frustrated priest. He is about to spend the weekend with his down on his luck, recovering alcoholic, carpenter dad, Walt (Clive Owen). But, their time together will go downhill fast when a momentary memory lapse ends with Walt’s custom tools stolen from his pickup truck. Father and son must join together and scour the city to find the thief, and save Walt in the process, in “The Confirmation.”
Bob Nelson, the scribe for Alexander Payne’s 2013 hit, “Nebraska,” makes his directing debut with his own script as his source. The result, “The Confirmation,” attempts to take on many things – religion, marriage, raising a child, hope, trust and faith – and cloak them in a father/son road movie where they have the common bond to find Walt’s tools. The tools are his only means to climb out of his self-induced morass and their search takes on an increasing desperation as the story unfolds.
There is a lot going on, maybe too much to keep the film balanced, but there is a great deal of heart in the father/son story. Clive Owen does hang dog to perfection as Walt really tries to take care of his son while his estranged wife, Bonnie (Maria Bello), is on a Catholic couples' weekend with her new husband, Kyle (Matthew Modine). Anthony’s deeply religious stepdad insists that he receive Communion and Confirmation in the Catholic faith. The boy, though, has a mind of his own, something that Walt comes to understand.
There is a huge supporting cast of recognizable character actors, some used well, like Patton Oswalt as Drake, a helpful loser who tries to guide Walt to his stolen tools. Others, like Maria Bello, Robert Forster and Matthew Modine, are given wispy, at best, roles.
But, “The Confirmation” is about a boy and his dad finding each other and helping each other. Owen and young Lieberher have a great chemistry, evoking sympathy and, more important, empathy for the pair and their plight. I give it a B.
Eight-year-old son Anthony (Jaeden Lieberher, "St. Vincent," "Midnight Special") is so innocent, he frustrates Father Lyons (Stephen Tobolowsky, "Memento") in the confessional, but after a weekend spent with his down-on-his-luck dad (Clive Owen), he'll more than make up for it in "The Confirmation."
writer/director Bob Nelson (screenwriter, "Nebraska") makes his directorial debut with this utterly charming modern day take on "Bicycle Thieves." The blue collar fringe types Walt (Owen) associates with all turn out to be a little too nice, but there's something refreshing about that too, a sense of small town community where folks look after one another. Owen and young Lieberher are terrific together, a desperate father and wary son forming a lifelong bond over one wild weekend.
Tony's mom Bonnie (Maria Bello, "A History of Violence") and her new husband Kyle (Matthew Modine, "Full Metal Jacket") are pushing the youngster to catch up on his Catholic education while they themselves attend a religious marriage retreat. Tony hasn't been seen much of his alcoholic dad and is a bit anxious about spending time with him. When he picks Tony up, Walt tells Bonnie he won't promise not to drink, he just won't do it.
The first place Walt stops in his hiccuping pickup is the Citadel Tavern, but he's merely hooking up with contacts in search of a carpentry job. Waiting in the truck, Tony offers chocolate to another boy waiting outside, then is taken aback by his treatment by the two men who come out moments before his dad.
Walt's so hard up, he can't afford to take his son for a burger, offering him a sandwich in his humble home. He's elated to get a call offering a solid job for that Monday, but when he asks Tony to unlock his tool box from the back of the pickup, they discover it's been stolen. Walt's luck continues into such a downward spiral it's almost comical, his truck breaking down and his home locked for eviction before he's barely begun tracing his valuable, specialized tools. His good friend Otto (Robert Forster, "Jackie Brown") can't lend any but suggests Vaughn (Tim Blake Nelson, "O Brother, Where Art Thou?") as a lead to track them down. Tony recognizes Vaughn as one of the men at the Citadel, and while he gets along just fine with Vaughn's son Allen (Spencer Drever, TV's 'Fargo'), the kid he'd also met, Allen's older brother Mike (Quinn Dubois) turns out to be a sadist with a loaded weapon.
Father and son will meet a meth-addicted drywaller, Drake (Patton Oswalt), deal with alcoholic withdrawal, have a run-in with the law (Catherine Lough Haggquist, "Elysium") and a showdown with Vaughn before they find the real thief, and even then they'll be up against an unsympathetic pawn broker. It's entertaining to tick off all the sins Tony racks up, but the trick here is that they're all in service to a noble goal (well, excepting one that involves a burger). Nelson does a nimble job walking a fine line between Catholic teachings and real world ethics, a joke at a coin changing machine particularly well earned. None of this would work without some exceptional characterizations, however, and Nelson and Owen have crafted a complex Walt, a good man whose pride in carpentry reveals a purity of spirit even if his will has been weak. Young Lieberher shows a depth of understanding, his character growing with exposure to the harsh truths he's been protected from.
There's also great interplay with supporting characters, Oswalt lending a sad comic edge, Patrick Gilmore ("The Cabin in the Woods") and Jennifer Copping ("Slither") characterizing a worse situation than Walt's. Young Drever is able to convey a false intimidation before showing his true nature. Also good is Bello as a religious mom not above being a true Christian when it helps to look the other way.
Production is low key but effective, making the most of its Pacific Northwest locations. Jeff Cardoni's (TV's 'The Grinder,' 'Silicon Valley') uses twangy guitar score plays to both the comic and dramatic tones of the film. "The Confirmation" is a small movie well worth seeking out - I wanted to give it a hug.
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