Directed by Bob Nelson
On Netflix, Streaming Services
The Confirmation is a small film, one that snuck into a few theatres and onto streaming services with little noise. Without Clive Owen's and Robert Forester's faces on the Netflix screen as I was flipping by the new releases I probably would never have known it existed. But as I was flipping through the list I heard a weak "I like those faces" from my flu ridden wife and I started the film. And I am very glad I did.
Like an Americana take on The Bicycle Thieves, The Confirmation is the story of a father and son searching for the father's stolen tool box. He needs those tools - he is out of work and has a job starting on Monday, he's being evicted from his home, his truck has died and he is just barely hanging onto sobriety. From that one incident, the stealing of the tools, grows a story that turns in unexpected and occasionally uncomfortable ways. It may seem on the surface to be yet another coming of age story but it really isn't. Writer/director Bob Nelson and his cast take all the cliches of the genre and turn them on their head. Where other film makers would settle with an out of touch dad tries to connect to his kid story or a who's the adult here story, The Confirmation never settles with the easy path.
We are introduced to the son, Anthony played with great charm and a disarming lightness by Jaeden Lieberher, at church with his mother. He is in confession, trying to think of any sins he might have committed since his last visit. Stephen Tobolowsky is the exasperated priest, sternly interrogating the boy for any misbehaviour. He offers more and more situations for Anthony to confess to, did you dishonour your parents, covet something, were you jealous of someone, have you had any sexual thoughts. Anthony is so innocent, he asks what that last one would be like. Of course, shortly after his confession he's outside lying to his mother about his absolution. It's a pretty harmless lie in the grand scheme of things. Lie about his absolution or tell his mother the truth about his fear of Catholic iconography, those are his choices. It's a small moment but it does introduce the notion that Anthony is wiser than he is letting on, that he doesn't lie for malice or for laziness, he lies for practicality. If someone offered us some baking and it was dry and full of apricots or some other evil fruit that only goats eat and they asked us if we liked it most of us would grin through the discomfort and say "yep!" rather than destroy the cook's feelings and confidence. These are adult decisions. And Anthony tells the lie, yes I finished absolution, rather than tell his mother the truth, that her church is like apricots in baking.
It's in those grey areas of morality that The Confirmation lives and breathes. Over the course of a weekend, Anthony will break a metric tonne of commandments. He will lie and steal and covet and bear false witness. But every single time we understand the why behind the sin. Anthony's goodness lies in his own understanding of what his actions mean. Over the weekend he learns the deeper lessons of consequences.
The Confirmation is a father and son story. A father who is a freelance carpenter, who does speciality work with the kind of tools that are not found in a Home Depot, a man proud of his work and thinks of the people who built our furniture, our vehicles, who sewed our clothes. "That chair, that was made by people. Not one person, a group of people made that chair," he tells Anthony. "Do you ever think about the people who made you clothes? You should." Clive Owen's Walt isn't all folk wisdom and testosterone, though. He is also a man who wrestles mightily with his demons, who struggles constantly with staying sober. He has a small support network in the person of Otto, played by Robert Forester. Otto is the one guy who believes in him, he is the one person who knows what Walt is struggling with. When Anthony calls Otto because his dad seems to have lost his mind, Otto is the one who tells Anthony what is really going on with his dad.
Anthony's spending the weekend with Walt because his mother and step-father are at a couple's retreat. And it looks to be a quiet weekend spent with a father he barely knows and understands even less. The distance between them, even when sitting together, is a deep, silent chasm. Until that toolbox goes missing, it seems as if it just going to be hours and hours of tension and unspoken resentments. A son who doesn't know how to speak to his father, a father too proud to tell his son that every single moment is a struggle.
It really is a testament to Bob Nelson's script and his directing that the film is as light as it is. As I read this back over I realize I am describing one incredible downer of a film. A film that would just tear out your soul and wear it as a sweater while you spend the rest of the night listening to nothing but Bauhaus on Spotify and wondering why you even bother any more. The Confirmation isn't that kind of film. For a film that deals with such heavy subjects, divorce and alcoholism and the nature of sin and the inability to provide, it is very funny. The humour is all deadpan, all dry. But there are some laugh out loud moments. Patton Oswalt as Drake, a guy that can maybe help Walt find his toolbox, is so, so very funny. Anthony's step-father Kyle, played by Matthew Modine has a man crush on Walt that he doesn't even try to hide. Maria Bello could have played Anthony's mom Bonnie as a hard ass, as a woman who just barely tolerates her ex-husband, but instead there is honest concern for Walt's well-being, for his mental health, for his relationship with his son. She is exasperated by her new husband's fawning over her ex, but never annoyed.
This movie has so much heart, so much depth. Every character seems to have a deep back story that is only hinted at, they are all fully conceived never just thumbnail sketches. From the old man in the church who has no lines, who just glances at Anthony as he walks by, to Drake and Vaughn and Tucker and Trout, everyone that the camera lingers on for even a brief moment, they all have stories to tell. When the film ends we want to visit these neighbourhoods again and again, we want to know their stories and see their lives.
So, my advice? Find The Confirmation. Your soul will thank you afterwards.