It's no surprise that a certain highly anticipated book-to-screen adaptation is planning on taking Hollywood by storm this upcoming Valentine's Day. Regardless of your personal views on the Fifty Shades Of Grey phenomenon, the one thing we all can agree on is that the cultural juggernaut is set to shatter records upon its February 13th release.
With that reality evident, few studios dare compete with what is sure to be a gargantuan opening weekend. That is, unless you're producer/director Rik Swartzwelder, who looks at the possibility of utter box office defeat and does what so few in the entertainment business dare try: embrace it.
It seems trite to call it a David vs. Goliath showdown, but there really is no better way to describe the release of Old Fashioned, a faith-based indie flick based classic principals of romance.
While both releases coming out on the same day provokes a contrast so striking it seems planned, in reality, Swartzwelder has been in the process of making this project for the last 10 years. "We didn't set out to make [this] as a response to any other book or movie," he explains, "we were simply trying to craft a love story that was God-honoring and took a counter-cultural approach."
Old Fashioned centers around reformed frat boy Clay Walsh (Swartzwelder) and his budding romance with local new girl Amber Hewson (Elizabeth Ann Roberts), an eccentric nomad who makes her home wherever her empty gas tank abandons her. Renting out a studio apartment located above the antique shop Clay owns, the protagonist becomes spellbound by Amber's free spirited outlook on life. When Amber finds herself falling for Clay too, you'd think it would be a match made in heaven. The catch? Clay's views on love are a tad outdated for Amber's liking.
Not being alone in a room with a woman before he's married is just the beginning of Clay's "theory," which also includes views such as courtship opposed to dating, going out only in public places, and having his potential suitor home by 11:00 pm. Amber is intrigued (and slightly annoyed) by his standards, yet still finds herself attracted to Clay and the reliably of his character, something she's never found in any of her prior love interests. Fuelled by his personal belief in Jesus and, we come to discover, a dark personal history, Clay is conflicted about his feelings for Amber. In the end, the two must somehow find a way to move past the obstacles of cynical friends and personal baggage in order to see their potential relationship succeed.
To offer a two sided perspective on this modern day tale of old, I invited fellow NRT contributor J.J. Francesco to screen the film and offer his two cents from a guy's perspective. Here are some highlights we enjoyed about the film, and the errors we felt could have been avoided.
Sarah: There are a handful solid moments in this film that deserve praise, such as the character of Clay's Aunt Selma, who provides a comical voice of reason. An older woman with an unapologetically snarky nature, she's often the one providing commentary the audience desperately wants to offer. Her time in the film is cut to a few short scenes, but her presence makes an impact.
Though his portrayal is quite overdone at times, the role of Clay's college friend Chuck (AKA Howard Stern-vein radio personality "Lucky Chucky") was also a highlight in the film. A syndicated shock jock, he's the character you love to hate, with much of his brash woman shaming dialogue sounding believable enough to feel painfully authentic.
In the end, I get the message Old Fashioned is trying to convey, and I applaud them for their effort. In a society where the word "love" is seemingly being redefined, this movie is a thought-provoking look at what a genuine relationship with standards and respect could potentially look like when put into practice.
J.J.: To the movie's credit, it wasn't what I had anticipated. At times, the idiosyncratic relational "theories" of Clay made for some cute scenes (i.e. Amber continually wrecking things around her house to get him to come over and fix them and spend time with her through the safety of her screen door).
Aunt Selma was funny, and there were some legitimately humorous lines that had fun with the premise. The movie seemed to at least aspire to be deep and thought-provoking, and I applaud that it ultimately doesn't just make Clay a completely perfect Christian who wins total validation in the end. There's a solid story that wanted to come out in this movie.
Sarah: I ended my thoughts on what worked in this film by saying it was what a relationship with standards and respect could potentially look like. Unfortunately, a failure to communicate that message adequately is where it falls flat. The characters are one dimensional, and though both Amber and Clay grow in their convictions throughout the film, neither of them walk away having changed anything about themselves. It felt like the movie ended on a positive note just for the sake of providing resolution.
Clay's "theory" on dating comes across harsh to those who may be unfamiliar to the idea of courtship, sounding borderline legalistic and non-redemptive. While that's admittedly a comical key factor in his development, he never fully grows out of it. The film could have dedicated more time to his evolution from extreme to intentional. Clichés such as Amber and Clay's non-believing friends spending much of their time visiting bars and late-night parties feel like a stereotype, while that time could have been better spent developing the growth of supporting roles.
The biggest shame to me is that the message of the gospel, which could have been displayed beautifully through the main characters' relationship, felt forced through a sea of contrived Scripture references. The only time the conversation about God ever feels natural is during the film's powerful climax.
J.J.: Unfortunately, what made the movie frustrating was how often it got in the way of itself. Maybe it was the heavy-handed dialogue that often broke up some genuine scenes and turned the characters into walking talking points. Other times it was the movie's wavering in its own theme.
I also think chalking all of this up to Clay's "theory" is another odd choice. It almost plays like the movie is trying to beat you over the head with the proverbial Jesus stick while trying to trick you into not thinking that it's trying to beat you over the head with the proverbial Jesus stick. I think the film could have had Clay own these beliefs more. Be they deep-seated religious beliefs, the result of bad experiences, or a mixture of the two, chalking it all up to his "theories" made him a bit too contrived.
The premarital book also became a bit overplayed. It made some effective comic relief, but I think it also undermines the supposed thesis of the movie by making religious people look legalistic.
I think the performances, while not bad, were also not very compelling. This was especially true with Clay. Maybe it was just that the movie never really let the characters breathe, but a lot of it just felt flat and dazed.
Sarah: I walked into Old Fashioned with extremely high hopes. Being marketed as the "alternative option" in theaters this Valentine's Day, I was desperately hoping I'd find something enjoyable to share with friends. However, I came out of this movie with more confusion than conviction.
There are absolutely praiseworthy moments in this film, and the occasions in which they occur are enough to give it a shot at least once. But if this is what's being promoted as the aforementioned alternative, I'm afraid to say it might send potential viewers running in the opposite direction. Hollywood desperately needs faith-based movies with the perfect blend of romance and respect. In due time, I'm sure we will see that come to fruition. Until then, this at the very least starts the conversation.
J.J.: I want that happily-ever-after with a wife and kids like most young Christians. I believe in fairly "old-fashioned" ideas about dating and marriage myself. I can relate to what the movie was shooting for, and I even think the movie had glimpses of something great many times, but glimpses aren't quite enough to carry a movie. When the story feels too manipulated, the characters will fail to resonate. When said manipulation itself feels muddled, the movie won't even work well as a parable.
Old Fashioned is a passable alternative, but I do think it's time Christians stopped settling for faith-based movies that are merely passable alternatives to mainstream. Not having objectionable content is commendable, but Christian films shouldn't get passes on artistry just because they have faith-based themes and a lack of R-rated moments. This movie hovers around a "C" for me: perhaps enough to pass the test, but we need to start striving for an "A" instead of being happy with "not-an-F."
Sarah Fine loves writing and music; they are two of her biggest passions. If you don't find her secluded somewhere with a pen and paper, you'll most likely spot her at a concert or blasting some tunes with friends.
J.J. Francesco is an aspiring fiction writer who enjoys Christian rock, good movies and TV, good food, and good company.