Children raised without involved fathers are far more likely than children with fathers to live below the poverty line, suffer illness, commit crime, go to jail, do drugs, perform poorly in school, and become absent fathers themselves. Many sociological factors contribute to the fatherhood decline, but the makers of Courageous, which opened September 30, aren't interested in placing blame. Instead, they are calling men to buck the trend and make a heroic commitment.

Courageous, the fourth film from Sherwood Pictures (Facing the Giants, Fireproof, Flywheel), is a step forward for the church-based company. With each outing—and bigger budgets and better production values—they become more adept at artfully exploring characters, relationships, and the theme underlying all their films: conversion. While Sherwood's tendency toward didactic storytelling persists, Courageous is its most ambitious and watchable film to date.

From the start, it's evident how far the film company has and hasn't come. Courageous opens with a grabber that establishes a main character as a competent hero, touching on themes of fatherhood and self-sacrifice by showing rather than telling. But as two characters drive away, they muse moralistically about whether they could have matched the heroic paternal devotion they just witnessed. A lighter touch would have felt more like a movie and less like a sermon illustration.

Perhaps that's not entirely fair. Sherwood is, after all, a church-based ministry as well as an indie film company. Perhaps a certain "Davey and Goliath for grownups" vibe is simply part of their milieu, and even what their audiences want and expect.

Courageous is a loose-knit ensemble piece about five men—four police officers (three Anglo, one African American) and a Latino construction worker—and their domestic and professional lives. Not all the men are married nor live with the mothers of their children, but the challenges of fatherhood touch every character in one way or another. Most of them are also believers—Baptist-style Protestants, to be specific. (A hint of Catholicism or Pentecostalism in the Latino household might have contributed a bit of realistic diversity.)

At the center of the story is Adam Mitchell (writer-director Alex Kendrick), an experienced police officer, respectable family man, and a Christian. He seems to have it all together, but complacency keeps him from being entirely there for his family. When a domestic crisis erupts inside his own home, Adam reevaluates his priorities, his faith, and his role as a father. The filmmakers do their best to give the crisis its full weight, but their reach exceeds their grasp, and exposition takes the place of storytelling and character development. ("My emotions are all over the place," Mitchell's wife explains at one point.)

Mitchell decides to formalize his commitment with a pledge or resolution, which ends up as the film's equivalent of Fireproof's The Love Dare: a concrete way that viewers can participate in the movie's program. The resolution becomes a formal, religiously tinged ceremony in which the fathers solemnly commit themselves to God, honor, and family. After that, some of the fathers are tested, with mixed results.

A major weakness of Facing the Giants was that once the struggling protagonist recommitted his life to God, everything went his way. The same spirit shows up in Courageous: While Mitchell's son Dylan rebuffs his dad's attempts to reach out after the family crisis, there's little doubt that Mitchell can turn their relationship around any time he wants. Parents of alienated teenagers find it can be difficult to make amends, and issues have lingering half-lives if they fade at all. But not in a Sherwood Pictures film.

Still, the filmmakers aspire for Hollywood quality, and while they aren't there yet, they are certainly moving in the right direction.

Steven D. Greydanus is a film critic for Christianity Today and the National Catholic Register.

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