The U.S. is swiftly becoming a society without fathers. In approximately the quarter century from the time my parents married to the time I married, the percentage of children living apart from their biological fathers more than doubled—and the situation is worsening, with devastating consequences. Children raised without involved dads are far more likely to live in poverty; to suffer illness or death; to be involved in delinquency, crime, substance abuse, and imprisonment; to do poorly in school or drop out; and to perpetuate the cycle of fatherlessness with all its consequences.
All kinds of sociological factors contribute to the decline in fatherhood, but the makers of Courageous aren't interested in blaming society. They want to address a clarion call to fathers—to husbands, to men—to buck the trend, to make a heroic commitment, in the teeth of an apathetic or hostile society, to do what is right, loving, and honorable by their children and their children's mothers.
Coming on the heels of Fireproof, Courageous is the fourth film from Sherwood Pictures, and it's another step forward for the church-based film company. Director Alex Kendrick and his brother Stephen Kendrick, both pastors at Sherwood Baptist Church in Albany, Georgia, have co-written and produced all of Sherwood's films. With each outing, the brothers not only enjoy a bigger budget and better production values, but become more adept in their handling of characters, relationships, and the difficult theme underlying all their films: conversion. While the film's church-based roots and the tendency toward didactic, schematic storytelling are still in evidence, Courageous is their most ambitious and watchable film to date.
Right from the start it's evident how far the filmmakers have and haven't come. Courageous opens with an unexpected grabber that establishes a main character as a competent hero, in the process introducing themes of fatherhood and self-sacrifice by showing rather than telling—all while demonstrating technical chops to boot.
While that opening raises the bar significantly over previous Sherwood productions, in the aftermath, as a pair of cops drive away from the scene, their on-the-nose dialogue underscores the moral as they muse whether they could have matched the heroic paternal devotion just witnessed. A lighter touch would have been more effective—more like a movie and less like a sermon illustration, or more precisely a church-produced drama.
Perhaps that's not entirely fair. Sherwood Pictures is, after all, a church-based ministry as well as an indie film company. Perhaps a certain "'Davey and Goliath' for grown-ups" vibe is simply part of the Kendricks' milieu, and even what their audience expects. Still, their films aspire to the condition of Hollywood genre pictures, and while they're not there yet, they're moving in the right direction.
Where previous Sherwood films focused on a single protagonist and his relationships, 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 are married, or live with the mothers of their children, but the challenges of fatherhood touch them all in one way or another. Most are also believers. (All Baptist-style Protestants, of course. A hint of Catholicism in the Latino household might have been a nice bit of realistic diversity. Sherwood has reached out to Catholics for consultation during development via marketing; can they bring themselves to acknowledge Catholics onscreen?)