While the Christian world and its religious allies cry in the wilderness that sex is sacred; the rest of the world is rushing to see Fifty Shades of Grey. Over Saint Valentine’s Day weekend, the bacchanal film set a box-office record for an R-rated movie opening in the month of February—and thus the record set ironically by Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ eleven years ago has at last been eclipsed.
Too bad no cinematic faith-based masterpiece is out there to compete with the likes of “Fifty Shades.” Instead there’s a movie called Old Fashioned, a small independent film that timed its release to be the alternative to the sexually explicit, pornographically indulgent, and tagged as “smut for soccer moms” movie. One might ask: where’s Mel Gibson when you need him?
Old Fashioned is definitely an alternative to Fifty Shades of Grey. It may be praised for having the courage to call into question the absolutely commonly accepted morality of our time that sex has no inherent meaning—and certainly does not have an exclusively nuptial meaning. This movie may be called fresh and provocative for saying that it does. Unfortunately, while Old Fashioned dares to advocate a fresh counter-cultural view on sex and marriage, the movie is weighed down by weaknesses that cause it to ultimately fail as a good piece of cinematic art. There are many, including several Christian commentators who, rightly concerned about the culture war and the battle for truth in the public square, feel it is wrong to criticize a movie that’s on our side, for the sake of winning that war. However, those who make Christian-based movies need to do a better job in mastering the relationship between the film-making art and the advocacy of desperately needed Christian ideas and themes.
Old Fashioned is written and directed by Rik Swartzwelder who also plays the lead-role of the semi-reclusive Clay Walsh. The story is focused on a romance between Walsh who owns an antique store called “Old Fashioned,” located in a sleepy Midwestern college town, and Amber Hewson (Elizabeth Ann Roberts) a pretty, free-spirited divorced young woman, fleeing her physically abusive boyfriend. Amber seems completely nonplussed when her car runs out of gas and she ends up in this charming out-of-the-way village. But Amber, consistent with the free-spirited-type, is driving around the United States, going from town to town, staying only long enough in each locale to earn enough money to get back on the road again until running out of gas brings her to the next temporary destination.
When Amber rents the apartment above the Old Fashioned antique store, her new landlord, mopped-haired, frumpily-dressed Clay very strangely refuses to enter the apartment with her to show her around. Instead he remains outside the closed screen door, beyond the dwelling’s threshold. Amber asks him what’s the problem and Clay explains that he made a promise not to be alone with any woman who is not his wife. It turns out he doesn’t have a wife—he just has very fixed ideas about male/female relationships, courtship and dating. And it is this scene, already very early in the story, that shoves the film off course. Instead of easing the viewer into this odd character and his odd views, Old Fashioned immediately reveals its counter-cultural theme in the covert dialogue that now ensues between Clay and his new tenant. The viewer is introduced right away to Clay’s “old fashioned” ideas as he castigates our culture’s obsession with sex, lack of respect for women and the superficiality of dating that he pontificates doesn’t really prepare anyone for marriage.
This is the mistake that most faith-based movies fall into. Such movies can’t wait to do the preaching—as there’s certain anxiousness in the Christian film-maker that will not allow for subtlety and real story-line development. Since film is a visual medium, the rule should be “show-me—rather than tell me”—provide less sermonizing that depends on the spoken word—and more story-telling imagery that depends on the creative visual imagination.
Despite, or perhaps because of Clay’s unusual views, Amber is attracted to Clay and a romance slowly develops between them, but according to his rules. Thus their first “date” is humorously a kind of evangelical Christian pre-Cana session with the local minister. On all subsequent dates Clay and Amber pour through a compatibility manual. Amber who describes herself as “spiritual” but not into all that Bible teaching, is willing to go along with Clay’s ethical peculiarities.
But Clay has a past. When attending the local college he was a wild frat boy who slept with many women, and even produced a “girls gone wild” smut film. He also had a relationship with a girl named Kelly (Anne Marie Nestor) with whom he was unfaithful because she resisted sleeping with him. This caused Kelly to seek another boyfriend on the rebound, ironically allow herself to be seduced by him thus bearing a child out of wedlock.
Deeply affected by what happened to Kelly, Clay experiences a religious conversion by reading the Bible. With his new-found faith in Christ Clay radically repudiates his dissolute past and embraces a rigid ethical code when it comes to sex and respect for women.
The opposite point of view is expressed in the film by Clay’s buddies from college days. First there’s good-looking womanizer Brad, a radio show host who builds a national following based on his arrogant denigration of women as mere sex objects believing women want and enjoy carnal lust just as much as men do. Clay’s other friend is an African American named David (Lejon Woods). At first the viewer thinks he’s married, but it turns out that David is only living with his white girl friend Lisa (Nini Hadjis) and their young daughter. These characters both represent the immoral, what’s-wrong-with-our-culture, behavioral patterns in contrast to the Christian morality embraced by Clay and promoted by the film. The movie, while not sympathetic to Brad, kindly portrays David and Lisa as essentially decent people, who eventually do marry, thus bringing the couple in line with the film’s “sex is for marriage” message.
The movie provides at least two strong, well-crafted episodes. The first when Clay protests the appearance of a stripper at David’s bachelor party that results in the groom’s taking his own stand and dismissing her. A scene filled with genuine tension follows when the stripper’s burly “employer” physically threatens Clay since he interfered in her financial gains that evening. The other is the climatic episode of the film. Amber, after forcing herself to watch the smut tape, is now disillusioned about Clay and goes to the local bar. There she pairs off with the movie’s bad boy Brad who escorts her to his hotel where she lingers symbolically at threshold of his room. In the meantime, Kelly, in town for David and Lisa’s wedding, pays a visit to Clay at his home and apparently going against his own rules, she’s invited in, and is later shown exiting the next morning toting her suitcase. The dramatic tension engages the viewer who is made to wonder if the film’s romantic couple will fall into sin—and thus fall apart.
Old Fashioned presents a unique moral message that begs for a cinematic treatment but the film falters on a number of levels. The movie is much too slowly paced and thus creates a somewhat tedious viewing experience, the romance between Clay and Amber lacks real spark, tension and chemistry, their dialogue rarely rises beyond what is expected these characters would say to each other. For the majority of the film Rik Swartzwelder’s Clay is an emotionally monotone figure. The situation presented by the film, and Clay’s more than unusual ethics and behavior lend themselves to at least come comedic treatment—which would have greatly enhanced this film’s appeal, but such comedy never materializes. Clay’s great Aunt Zella (Dorothy Silver) is too conveniently sagacious and an obvious story-line-contrived mechanism by which Clay will allow himself to truly love Amber when the aged aunt admonishes him to no longer carrying around “ancient, crusty useless guilt like a trained pet poodle you want to show off … let it go.”
Finally, and regretfully, the movie’s point of view is crafted in the usual faith-based, Christian self awareness mode that just about guarantees only those already in agreement with its view of sex and respect for women will patronize it.
It is greatly hoped that committed Christian film makers will perfect their story-telling craft—learn to evolve beyond the preachy story. The trick is to present human drama more subtly and artfully informed by those Christian humanistic truths of which our culture is so desperately in need.