Clive Owen is always a welcome presence in any film, but particularly in one as smartly subtle and engaging as Bob Nelson’s “The Confirmation”, and in which Owen shares the screen with (and is often upstaged by) one of the greatest young talents of the next generation, Jaeden Lieberher.
“The Confirmation” is quietly moving, laced with the humor and pain inherent to life. A beautiful character study in the dynamics of a father and son, the chemistry between Owen and Lieberher is magical – and absolutely believable. Academy Award nominated writer (“Nebraska”) and now first-time director, Bob Nelson has crafted an emotionally nuanced script with a defining arc that, thanks to the religious aspect of “confirmation”, sets the stage for decisions and actions premised upon “The Golden Rule” along with raising questions of right and wrong and little white lies, as a young boy – and his father – not only find each other, but themselves.
8-year old Anthony is by all accounts, a perfect son. Living with his strict Catholic mom Bonnie and her husband Kyle, Anthony is quiet and well-mannered, and he does what he is told when he is told; do your homework, eat everything on your plate, don’t fight, go to confirmation class, say your prayers, go to confession, ask for forgiveness. But in Anthony’s case, he has nothing to confess; that is until he spends a weekend with his dad, Walt.
Divorced and down on his luck, Walt has more than his share of problems, starting with drinking too much. An exasperation and disappointment to ex-wife Bonnie, more often than not, Walt doesn’t get to spent time with Anthony. A self-employed carpenter, money is always tight and one senses that drinking binges play a large part in missed jobs, missed income and missed time with Anthony. While Bonnie hammers home “The Golden Rule” through the teachings of the church, Walt imparts the same messaging (if Bonnie would listen) through a more practical way of looking at the world – from his heart. And this weekend, Anthony might just get the benefit of Walt’s insight as Bonnie and Kyle are heading out for a church retreat, leaving Anthony in Walt’s care.
As comes as no surprise, the weekend doesn’t start off too well for Walt as his car breaks down when he’s due to pick up Anthony. Not saying anything to Bonnie about the car lest it jeopardize his time with his son, Walt plays it off as easily as water slides off the back of a duck. But as Walt and Anthony set off, things start to get interesting; and not in a good way.
Stopping at the local bar “to talk to someone about a job”, Walt leaves Anthony in the car. But when a few minutes turns into 30 or more, Anthony goes into the bar to look for his dad. In just those few minutes, Walt and Anthony go back outside to find all of Walt’s tools stolen from his truck. Now what? He needs those tools for work. Beyond that, those tools belonged to Walt’s dad, adding great sentimentality and attachment to them. Trying to figure out what to do, the situation goes from bad to worse as when Walt and Anthony get to Walt’s house, they find Walt has been evicted due to non-payment of rent and he is locked out of the house. Remember that Anthony never had any sins to confess? Well, that’s about to change as Walt calls upon Anthony to break into the house by crawling through a window. And then the car completely dies, so the boys head to Anthony’s house where they spend the weekend (unbeknownst to Bonnie and Kyle) while Walt drives Bonnie’s car (albeit non-driveable due to no brakes which does result in Walt performing a good deed by repairing the brakes) as they follow leads to find who stole Walt’s tools. And through it all, we witness the little boy in both and the man each becomes on this Tom Sawyer-Huck Finn adventure.
Jaeden Lieberher carries the emotional bulk of “The Confirmation” on his very capable young shoulders with the wisdom and ease of his very experienced co-stars. Thanks to deft direction by Nelson and beautiful lensing by Terry Stacey, we see the nuanced emotion that Lieberher conveys through facial expression. We feel Anthony grow closer to Walt and we see understanding in his eyes that belies his youth. There is no denying the talent of Jaeden Lieberher or his chemistry with Clive Owen.
As incredible as Lieberher is, Clive Owen is moreso; simply mesmerizing as he fully embodies Walt, a man suffering DTs and alcohol withdrawal. Walt’s pain is palpable thanks to Owen’s performance, so much so that rather than judge Walt for his shortcomings in life, we feel sympathy, empathy and hope for Walt’s redemption. But on the flip side, he makes Walt an emotionally layered and full body character; like most men, still a little boy, but also a man still trying to emulate his own father while his son is debating whether or not to emulate or look up to him. Fascinating dynamic that presents thanks to Owen’s nuance. Owen and Lieberher just feed off of each other. Outstanding is Nelson’s scripted dialogue and subtext regarding Walt’s thoughts on life. Thanks to the character design by way of a man who has walked away from the church, and Owen’s matter-of-fact thoughtful delivery, Nelson’s words are made all the more powerful.
Populating the film with all kinds of characters is just plain fun – especially given that some of Walt’s acquaintances are the complete opposite of the “holy rollers” that Maria Bello’s Bonnie advocates – and Nelson covers the spectrum of characters. Although in limited scenes, Bello is equally perfect as a caring, albeit slightly overbearing, mother and disdainful ex-wife Bonnie. As local con artist with a heart of gold and ear to the ground, Patton Oswalt is a kick in the ass. And with just one eyeroll, as Father Lyon, Stephen Tobolowsky will have you in hysterics. As one of the local good ol’ boys who is suspect in the theft chain of Walt’s tools, Michael Eklund adds a nice touch with some engaging interplay with Owen. Not often impressed with Matthew Modine, here as Kyle, he is beyond tolerable. Welcome is the sage presence of Robert Forster as Walt’s best friend and seemingly surrogate father, Otto. Particularly poignant are some key exchanges between Forster and Lieberher. Utterly charming is Spencer Drever as neighborhood boy Allen and his chemistry with Lieberher’s Anthony. The Huck Finn-Tom Sawyer dynamic continues with the two of them, as well as with the escapades of Walt and Anthony.
Written and directed by Bob Nelson, “The Confirmation” belies the work of a first-time director (“at age 60”, as he liked to remind me in our recent interview). Calling on many of the same fundamental principles of strength of character that Nelson delivered with the script for “Nebraska”, he again calls on his own roots and core philosophies of life, such as “The Golden Rule”, as a basis and grounding for each character and the story as a whole. Tapping into his years of experience with comedy writing, Nelson then infuses lighter moments and laughter as being inherent to some of the foibles and fun of Walt and Anthony’s adventures. Nothing is over wrought or forced.
Smartly calling on cinematographer Terry Stacey, the two design a visual grammar that is beautifully cinematic. Stacey keeps the visual tone light, relying on natural light that has that somewhat diffused look to it with a winter sky. There is no super saturated heightened reality. The style is understated with simplicity and grace that allows scenes to breathe which fuels the cinematic feel. Lighting keeps things real and capture the downtrodden nature of Walt’s predicament while still playing to the natural light, giving the film a hopeful note. Contrasting Walt and Anthony’s escapades, we have a richness of texture and color with Robert Forster’s Otto, both in Otto’s home and in his clothing. Close-ups are used judiciously so when they pop up, they pack an emotional punch.
Not to be overlooked is Jeff Cardoni’s score. Softly understated, the score follows, buttressing the emotion of a scene, rather than force feed the audience.
Although “The Confirmation” starts a bit slow, as the story unfolds, the initial pacing makes sense as it lays the foundation for the heartfelt father-son adventure and emotional growth of what comes thereafter. Superb performances punctuated by a thoughtful and warm story and cinematic texture confirm one thing this week – “The Confirmation” is a “must see” film for all.
Written and Directed by Bob Nelson
Cast: Clive Owen, Jaeden Lieberher, Maria Bello, Robert Forster, Matthew Modine, Michael Eklund, Patton Oswalt, Stephen Tobolowsky
“The Confirmation” opens in theatres Friday, March 18, 2016.