One week ago, I committed to reviewing the new Christian movie Old-Fashioned, which marketed itself as the antithesis of 50 Shades of Grey. My decision was part curiosity and part optimism that the state of Christian art could get better. I really, really wanted to like this film. I’m tired of being the haranguing siren that stays stuck forever on the “Christian art is sub-par” note. I went in with a good attitude, believing that I might be able to come back and report to all of you that someone had put together the next Paradise Recovered and made something for the Christian indie film industry to brag on.
Well, I saw it. I took J for an extra pair of critical eyes and we watched it before our Valentine’s Day dinner (Olive Garden, if you must know).
This review was hard to write, for two reasons. One, the quality of the film disappointed me, dashing my hopes of writing something really positive. Two, the movie’s message came across so muddled that I’m honestly not sure how to react to it.
It’s been 24 hours, and J and I have yet to reach a consensus about exactly what the film was saying in its final scene. About all I can tell you for sure is that it was, indeed, different from what I hear of 50 Shades.
So I can’t write the review I wanted to write. I’m stuck writing this one. Get a donut or something to cheer yourself up if this disappoints you. I’ve had a raspberry chocolate just now, so I’m good.
There Be Spoilers Here
Here’s the setup. Our leading man, Clay Walsh (Rik Swartzwelder, who also wrote, produced and directed the thing…oy vey…) runs a small-town antique shop. This former bad boy was once on the road to fame and fortune with his “College Girls Exposed”-esque videography company, but gave it all up nine years ago when Jesus found him. He hasn’t had a relationship since, but instead developed a complex set of “theories” about how relationships should go.
Amber (Elizabeth Ann Roberts), a free spirit who nomads her way around the U.S., winds up in Clay’s town and rents the antique shop’s upstairs apartment. At first, all we know of her is that she’s carefree and moves around a lot, but we slowly learn that she’s had a series of bad relationships.
They meet, start talking, and become attracted to each other.
Now, I’m going to get this out of the way, since it’s the most predictable and least interesting complaint, but…the writing of this film is really lackluster. The audience is constantly asking questions that never get answered. Does the uber-independent Amber have a family, and/or do they keep in touch? How does she end up with a job and drinking buddies basically one day after moving to this new town? How did Clay and his friend Brad both go from small Ohio town nobodies to up-and-coming stars with offers from Hollywood producers—isn’t that a fantastic coincidence? Why do Clay and his ex act like their emotional wounds are so fresh when it’s actually been nine years since they broke up—and why, after nine years, would she expect to immediately jump in bed with him?
The dialogue isn’t as bad as a Mystery Science Theater movie, but it’s not very smart, or even very interesting. Amber’s nickname for Clay is “Stress Boy,” which sounds like the way I talked in junior high when I wanted to be funny. At the start of the film, she says something like, “Well that’s a bunch of hooey!” and it doesn’t really go up from there. Clay’s friend Brad has a misogynistic radio alter ego named “Lucky Chucky.” Couples tease each other in stereotypical Men From Mars, Women From Venus clichés. Again, it’s not ear bleeding, Attack of the Clones level bad, but it’s not witty or memorable or original. It’s like a first draft.
The only person with good dialogue is Clay’s delightful great aunt. I found her elderly smart-aleck personality hilarious! Unfortunately, most scenes were just Amber and Clay talking about relationships, or sometimes Amber and Clay and other people talking about relationships. At one point, Clay declares that “Everything has a story,” but I disagree; this movie did not have a story. It was one long exposition on 1990s evangelical courtship mentality and whether or not it works.
Likewise, we didn’t really get to know the characters. What does Amber want out of life? What were any of the six degrees she was pursuing over the years, and what did she hope to do with them? How is she so happy-go-lucky and independent if she just got out of a violently abusive relationship? What about Clay? Has anything impacted his character other than the guilt of his frat boy days? What do Clay and Amber like about each other? Since all they do is discuss relationship theories, it’s hard to tell if they’re even each other’s type.
I know it must seem that I’m attacking the film, but there really are that many problems and questions with the writing right off the bat.
But let’s keep going, because it’s not all bad. So Amber gets interested in her new landlord only to discover that he has a lot of rules about how relationships should go. She first discovers this when he refuses to come inside her apartment to fix things unless she steps outside, because he doesn’t want to be alone with a woman in a private location (apparently closed screen doors are enough of a barrier). Other rules include not kissing until your wedding day and eschewing “dating” in favor of intentional, serious relationships with marriage in mind…basically, the 1990s Christian courtship movement that became so popular with my generation of youth group kids. It all felt very familiar.
This is the point where uncertainty set in for me regarding the filmmakers’ views on relationships. Obviously the story endorses premarital abstinence and a thoughtful approach to love, but what of Clay’s complete disavowal of all dating and his adherence to a set of rules Amber finds archaic? Is this a model for us to admire, or a rigid formula we should root for him to outgrow by movie’s end?
Many things hint at the latter interpretation. Clay is told that he needs to “stop looking for a formula” to everything. Other characters joke about his cautious approach to relationships. One gag in particular seems to poke blatant fun at his attitude; the pre-marriage book he makes Amber read when they start dating, which is the butt of many jokes in many scenes. You know, even though that book was supposed to be funny, it made me squirm a bit. I’ve personally known people who, influenced by anti-dating teachings, made serious marriage conversations part and parcel of starting any relationship. Those people tended to be the ones who gravitated toward co-dependent and controlling dynamics. So, yeah, I get that Clay’s introduction of the book was supposed to be an eye-rolling Ha Ha moment, but in real life, a dating partner who makes it that serious from the start is not funny; s/he is showing red flags.
(And what’s this? The book’s title is “Red, Yellow, Green”? Oh…you mean like the yellow/red safe words used in 50 Shades of Grey? Wow. How…clever. You know, why don’t we just name these characters Not Anastasia Steele and Not Christian Grey instead of Amber and Clay, how about that?)
As the film goes on, Clay becomes increasingly tormented by his past exploitation of women, and often annoys other characters by his refusal to join in with light misogyny. This is one area where the film had me nodding. It condemns people who make fun of women, use them for sex, belittle them, and break their trust. Clay tells Amber that her abusive ex lost out big time by driving her away. He makes his best friend, David, rethink a naughty bachelor party because of how it might hurt David’s fiancée. Clay stands up to his misogynistic friend Brad, saying at one point, “When did respecting women become the joke?” At the end of the film, David turns off the “Lucky Chucky” radio show when his little daughter walks into the room—no doubt realizing that in a few short years, she will be old enough to be objectified and laughed at by people like Chucky. All very good things.
While we’re at it, did anyone notice the irony of how Lucky Chucky was portrayed? He’s a cocksure macho man with an over-focus on women’s sexual performance who dismisses the complaints of female listeners by trying to undermine their self-worth, and gets a pass for his misogyny because he’s popular with a wide audience.
So basically, he’s Mark Driscoll. Without the religious vocabulary. (Ba-dum-CHING).
As for its portrayal of misogyny, the film waffles. Some instances, like the decent friend caught up in a naughty bachelor party, feel authentic. Some rely on cringe-worthy stereotypes. Not every man at a bar completely disrespects women, and they certainly don’t Tarzan-call. There’s a little bit of a false dichotomy in the movie, where every man out there in the world is waiting to use you and people like Clay are the antidote. Toward the end, when Clay hurts Amber’s feelings, she almost hooks up with a guy who just wants sex. I couldn’t help thinking that in real life, someone like Amber would probably find an in-between, a non-Christian who shares her secular relationship outlook but wouldn’t use and discard her. It’s not the either-or the film sometimes veered toward.
In fact, I think there’s a real question to be asked here about whether people like Clay really are the antidote to disrespectful guys. I mean, let’s not forget that Clay is the one who makes Amber stand outside her own abode while he fixes her broken appliances, sometimes wrapped in a blanket against the chill, purely to satisfy a standard which he insists on and she does not share. And he does put her through the emotional wringer by both demanding utter seriousness in the new relationship and simultaneously refusing to show much affection, again claiming the high ground of his own moral opinions and disregarding her emotional needs. I had trouble understanding if the film was actually self-aware of its protagonist’s ironically disrespectful shortcomings. During the scene where Amber asks why they can’t have a “normal” date, where he brings her flowers and they talk about their feelings and they don’t get embroiled in theological battle about why they can’t actually date, I’m asking that question, too, and thinking that I would definitely advise my own daughter against continuing a situation like that. This was another point where the film confused me, because, as I said earlier, we still don’t have enough information to know why Clay and Amber are each other’s type. I was constantly asking myself why she liked him enough to go through all this.
But there is one thing you can say for Clay; whether you agree with his approach or not, he definitely seems to mean well, which is more than can be said for many other characters. So this film has more, ahem, shades of gray than you might think.
While we’re here, let’s look at some other shades of gray that I liked in this movie.
First, the writers were kind and even-handed in their portrayal of committed couples who have sex before marriage. Clay’s friend David has a long-time girlfriend and a 3-year-old daughter, and the couple get formally engaged early in the movie. The whole time, I was waiting in fear for THAT MOMENT—you know, the moment where something goes terribly wrong with David’s relationship, turning the couple into nothing more than an object lesson about how unloving and evil cohabitating couples really are, and how very doomed you are if you attempt to love someone before you become a Christian. But that moment never came, much to my relief. Another plus: David and his fiancee are an interracial couple, which the film takes as so normative that it’s never even remarked upon. Kudos!
I like Clay’s belief that you don’t have to be ambitious or rise to the top of some ladder to be successful. If you lead a life of integrity with people you love in a place you enjoy, you’re doing pretty good. That’s a message I can get behind. I wish they hadn’t portrayed it as a dichotomy—everyone who craved success beyond their small town was going down the “wrong” path, and all the “right” people had no big aspirations—but I think that had more to do with the writers falling back on easy stereotypes than any serious attempt to bash ambitious people (I mean obviously, since the writers were themselves making, y’know, a movie…in Hollywood…).
I also appreciated that Clay and Amber did not have to be virginal to have a love story worth telling. Each of them has a sexual past, but the film does not therefore assume that less is at stake for their romance, or that they have somehow missed their chance to have a beautiful story together. To a 90’s church kid who grew up hearing that wedding night virginity is the be-all and end-all of relational health, it was desperately refreshing to see a Christian movie that didn’t portray virginity as the only place from which you can start a happy story.
That’s not to say the film didn’t operate out of a conservative sexual theology; it did. Clay definitely believed that sex was made for marriage, and even Amber seems more open to that idea by the end. But the focus was on how one chooses to steward one’s sexuality today, in the here-and-now, and not on some all-or-nothing game where your sexual past makes you either a torn-up rose or a lucky, pure, white clean slate.
And that brings us to the end of the film.
The only interesting character, Clay’s great aunt, finally breaks through his shell and convinces Clay that he is clinging to guilt about his past unnecessarily. The guilt, she says, has driven him to two polar-opposite extremes. On the one hand, he’s overly pious and controlling, insisting on rules to keep everyone safe and keeping tabs when others break them. On the other hand, he uses that measuring stick against himself and beats himself up for long-ago mistakes.
This is, of course, exactly what legalistic thinking really does to people, and I have to give the writers credit for nailing that.
Clay breaks down crying and uses the term “damaged goods” to refer to himself, which, of course, his aunt vehemently denies. And at this point, I realized something pretty profound about this film. In watching the trailer and reading all the promotional hype, I had assumed that this was a story written to wag its finger at secular culture and tell it how to shape up, how to be more Christian in its romantic approach.
But it wasn’t written to them. This story was written to us.
This, unless I am very much mistaken, is a story about my generation of church kids and our crazy, confusing relationship to romance.
In its youth, my generation was introduced to a very strong theological fad about pre-marriage “purity” and the process of courtship. Purity was defined both sexually and emotionally, in very strict terms, so that even one kiss or even one major crush could violate it. And purity culture taught us that violating or “giving away” either of these things would make us damaged goods—unable to give fully to a future spouse. We would become a torn-up rose, a chewed piece of gum, a soda with spit in it, a sneezed-on pizza, a spouse standing at the altar with ten women instead of one. Pick whichever metaphor you like; they all appeared in Christian dating books and sermons.
This, of course, made us terrified of our own feelings, which apparently had the power to wreck our future marriage! Once it had us scared, this purity fad promised us a way out, a way to the perfect relationship, if only we’d obey the rules—rules like not kissing or being alone together or developing too many feelings. The rules were there to protect us, the rules would prevent these terrible consequences we’d heard so much about, and would prevent all the heartache that supposedly came from “dating.”
So we tried the rules, but they didn’t protect us from life. We fell in love with the wrong people anyway, lost those loves anyway, treated people badly anyway, got pregnant anyway, got divorced anyway—or maybe never married at all, because the rules kept us from ever getting to know someone. And after our inevitable failure to live up to purity’s perfect picture, we spent the next few years feeling guilty, wondering what went wrong and hearing those same old “no going back from impurity” tapes playing in our heads. Eventually, my generation had to question much of what we’d been told about relationships.
This describes Clay rather well. He and Amber are even the right age to be part of my cohort (okay, actually, I think Rik Swartzwelder is kidding himself on that front. The guy is clearly pushing forty).
So I was feeling pretty warm about all this, right? I was glowing. Someone had finally given voice to the romantic confusion peculiar to my generation of church kids. It was neat to have a film explain such a unique subculture experience, even if I was never a dyed-in-the-wool member of that particular fad.
Then came the ending scene, where Clay devises a romantic setting in the country store where they had their first date. Amber comes upon Clay surrounded by glowing candles, standing in, I kid you not, the suit and tie that Joshua Harris wore on the cover of I Kissed Dating Goodbye.
Hand to God. I scoured the internet for a screen shot of this, but could not find one.
He even stands with his head down so the hat hides his face, just like Harris.
It was the perfect thematic ending. Harris’ book cover was supposed to imply a man putting on his hat, hiding his face from and taking his leave of the dating world. Now Clay took off the hat to reveal himself, and set it aside, standing tall to face Amber. The boy had grown up. The desperate attempt to live by the rules had finally been put to rest. Our generation was finally letting go.
He proposes. She accepts. Amber comes to him in the candlelight, ready for her first kiss, and…
…they don’t kiss.
He taps her cheek—the gesture he made when he first told her about the no-kissing rule—and kisses her there instead of on the lips. No hanky panky until the wedding, after all.
I sat in startled silence. The lights came on. People around me started getting up. I couldn’t move.
What just happened?
What did this mean?
So he had to rethink the rules, but in the end he…didn’t rethink them?
Did he decide to embrace a different attitude toward conducting relationships, or not?
Did he decide his outlook was archaic and unworkable, or not?
Was he giving up on his rules along with the guilt, or just giving up the guilt and keeping the rules? I’m so utterly, hopelessly, despairingly confused! We don’t get to see enough of Clay and Amber’s interaction after he has this revelation. What rules does he now disregard if not the kissing one? Does he think differently about the dating process? Shouldn’t Amber insist that they get to know each other now that he’s out of his emotional straightjacket before they jump right to marriage?
That is why this film was so hard to review. So much of Clay’s beliefs about relationships are things that I would argue against. I think they seek to remove responsibility, delay the process of developing relational skills, promise false security, paint an imagined picture of the past, drive people to either take casual feelings too seriously or fearfully avoid what could become real connection. And I can’t tell how much of those views the movie endorses, and how much it believes Clay needs to grow out of.
I can already hear a few people saying, “So what? Does it matter if the movie had a few flaws or portrayed its message perfectly? 50 Shades of Grey is out there promoting domestic violence, and you’re going to rag on a movie that promotes respect for women?”
Well yes, I am. I’m very tired of Christian movies thinking they can get away with sub-par writing, sub-par acting, and sub-par storytelling just because they’re devoid of bad material.
You don’t make art to avoid bad material. You make art to make art. You think I decided to be a writer because I wanted to put good stuff in the world and refrain from bad stuff? Nope! I became a writer because I can’t not make my thoughts exist on paper. Talking about things that matter is just the sweet icing on that cake, my friends. It is no substitute for having well-crafted words. And a message that isn’t objectionable is no substitute for making a film that’s actually engaging.
Besides which, I thought the stated point of this movie was to impact the culture for Christ. But how on earth can we do that if we make poor quality movies? The masses do not watch poor-quality movies. The only people who watch them are people who are already Christians and want a movie that came from their in-crowd.
And if the masses want movies that present better relationship messages than 50 Shades of Grey, they can easily find them. How about Julie & Julia? How about It’s A Wonderful Life? How about the romances in Life Is Beautiful, or Beauty and the Beast, or, heck, even that couple at the beginning of UP? The rest of the world doesn’t need to look to our Christian films when so many other films are saying things with more style and pizzaz.
And that’s what really bothered me about all this. If it was a Christian film that existed to make money on Valentine’s Day, fine. But from the get-go it was marketed as some saving grace from 50 Shades. It’s trying to play with the big boys, despite being really mediocre quality. Isn’t anyone embarrassed by this? Does anyone notice that this plays perfectly into some people’s opinion that all Christians are simplistic morons who are in denial about how strange we are? Does that bother anyone besides me?