Fatherhood isn't for the fainthearted. It's a calling every bit as demanding—maybe even more so—as being a, say, fireman or policeman.
That's the life lesson Adam Mitchell, an Albany, Ga., deputy sheriff, learns in Courageous, Sherwood Pictures' follow-up to Fireproof. Adam is someone many fathers will identify with. He wears his uniform with pride. He provides for his wife, Victoria, and his two children. And because of that he figures he's not actually required to join his teenage son, Dylan, in a 5K father-son race. And even though 9-year-old Emily is the apple of his eye, he's quite positive that he's too dignified (read: embarrassed) to dance with her in a parking lot just because she begs. "I'm dancing with you in my heart, honey," he explains.
Let me put it another way: Adam works hard. He deserves a little TV time at the end of the day.
Adam's not the only father we meet here. Actually, the movie's chockablock with them. Fellow officer Shane Fuller is a divorced father struggling to make alimony payments for two sons. Atlanta cop Nathan Hayes has just moved back to Albany to raise his three children with wife Kayla—a job he's determined to do better than his deadbeat dad did. Rookie David Thomson looks like a carefree bachelor, but we soon learn that he's hiding his fatherhood. And Javier Martinez, the only man in this group who's not on the force, is fighting like mad to keep from losing his home. A home that currently shelters his wife and two young'uns.
By day these men either pursue Albany's drug dealers (or gainful employment). By night they manage the mundane affairs of their households. On weekends, they congregate around a backyard grill to mull their everyman conundrums.
Until, that is, tragedy strikes Adam, opportunity finds Javier, conviction changes David and temptation tugs at Shane. It's time for God's love and principles to win the day and make a few good fathers great fathers.
[Note: The following sections contain spoilers.]
The opening scene uses action and danger to provide a metaphor for what heroic fatherhood is all about: Nathan has just filled his truck up with gas and is about to squeegee his windows when a gangster hops into the driver's seat and rams the vehicle into gear. Nathan dives into the window and fights for control as they move down the road. It's a harrowing fight that ends with the truck hitting a tree and the thief fleeing on foot. A shocked onlooker remarks, "Don't worry about the car!" "I'm not worried about the car," Nathan says, opening the truck's back door to reveal a squealing infant.
Adam and Shane soon arrive, and afterward they discuss whether they would have acted so heroically. "Would you have held on?" Adam asks his partner.
That question fully frames Courageous' look at fatherhood: What does it take? And what will you do?
It's a concept Adam doesn't really face head-on until his precious Emily is killed (offscreen) by a drunk driver. But from that moment on, for his family it's all about being there for one another. When Adam laments, "I should have been a better father," his wife responds, "You're still a father." And when Victoria cries that if she'd made a different decision, Emily would still be alive, Adam tries to help her escape her tortured "What if?" thinking. Even stoic Dylan eventually cracks, sobbing, "I wish I would have been a better brother." Adam responds, "I love you, buddy. You are my son, and I am so proud of you. Don't ever forget that."
Adam seeks out his pastor's counsel. And at the end of the conversation, Adam resolves, "I want to heal. I want to know what God expects of me as a father. And I want to know how to help my wife and son." Bible study provides him with his roadmap. And he develops a written resolution expressing his new commitment. It's a document he and each of his friends commit to in a formal ceremony. Their vow begins, "I do solemnly resolve before God that I will take full responsibility for myself, my wife and my children. I will love them, protect them and serve them, and teach them the statutes of God as the spiritual leader of my home."
Albany's sheriff delivers a report that includes statistics linking fatherlessness to crime. Reinforcing those stats is Nathan's own story: When David suggests that divorce isn't that big a deal, Nathan counters, "Not having a father as a child scarred me in more ways than I can count," and says that he probably would have joined a gang were it not for an older Christian man who mentored him. Conversations like those eventually prompt David to admit he fathered a child out of wedlock in college, and that he subsequently abandoned the young woman and their child. Mixing in the message of salvation, Nathan challenges the young officer to take responsibility, which David does in the form of a letter to his child's mother that asks for forgiveness, offers financial support and commits to being present in the child's life if trust and relationship can be restored.
We learn that David's girlfriend refused to abort her baby even though he intimates that he asked her to.
Nathan sets out to teach his 15-year-old daughter, Jade, why she can't date quite yet and how he and her mother will be proactively involved in getting to know any young man she's interested in. A special father-daughter dinner provides the backdrop for him presenting her with a purity ring—which she eagerly accepts.
Part and parcel with the film's fatherhood themes is its emphasis on friendship. But it doesn't stop with the obvious benefits of having or being a friend. It dives into why such relationships are so important. Adam and his police peers, along with Javier, who joins their group after doing home-improvement work for Adam, meet over meals to talk about life. And their winsome camaraderie gradually goes deeper as they challenge one another to "man up."
Courage is seen in the line of duty, too. And when Adam discovers Shane has been stealing (and, it's implied, selling) drugs from the evidence room, he grimly does what needs to be done: reveal his partner's crime. Adam then visits Shane in prison, vowing to help him and his family in any way that he can. (It's clear that Shane regrets his choices.) Similarly, Nathan visits a gang member in prison to mentor him spiritually.
Emily's funeral includes an explanation of the hope Christ gives as the pastor says, "Because He lives, Emily lives." The film concludes in church with Adam delivering a rousing call for dads to serve God by serving their kids. "Walk with [your children] through their young lives," he preaches, "and be a visual representation of the character of God, their Father in heaven."
Adam tells his own son, "What I want for you is that you seek the Lord, that you trust Him, even if it means you're standing alone."
Nathan talks with David about every person's guilt before God and the cleansing forgiveness that's available in Christ because of His sacrifice. It's a message David accepts. Nathan also visits his father's grave and talks about how he's learned to accept God's love for him despite his earthly father's abandonment. He forgives his father and mentions that he hopes the man met Jesus before he died.
Javier and Carmen repeatedly try to cast their care on Christ when it comes to their family's income insecurities, even though they can't see how He'll provide. And when Javier is faced with the temptation of cheating as a way to get a promotion at a new job, he tells his employers that he won't dishonor God by lying.
Prayers are sincere and full of both faith and honest questions. After Emily's death, Adam tells his pastor, "I want to trust Him. I just don't understand what He is doing." His pastor replies, "He doesn't promise us explanations. But He does promise to walk with us through the pain." After some time passes, we see Adam thanking God for his years with Emily, and asking Him to tell her he completed the dance with her (which we see him do on the lawn as he imagines dancing with her).
David briefly references the fact that he "hooked up" with a cheerleader, a romance that resulted in an unintended pregnancy. Nathan tells David that his father had six different children by three different women.
The opening sequence, where Nathan dives into the window of his truck, is one of several intense police vs. criminals encounters. Nathan hits the thief with his fist and tries to hang on as the carjacker tries to shake him off, eventually plunging the vehicle into a ditch where it hits a tree.
Another scene involves a lengthy police chase of two suspected drug dealers on foot and in cars, after which they're apprehended amid scuffles. Then, late in the film, a final confrontation proves to be the most explosive, as small-time pushers unsuccessfully try to shoot police with a pistol and a shotgun. After a bullet-ridden standoff and two punishing fistfights, all the baddies are apprehended. But before they are, it looks as if one of them is going to take a little girl hostage, grabbing at her as she screams and runs.
From outside the circle, we see a ring of young men kicking someone on the ground. Eventually the gang's leader calls off the assault, and we learn that it was an initiation rite.
Crude or Profane Language
Drug and Alcohol Content
A drug dealer evading police tries to hide a plastic bag containing drugs. Gang members talk about having two kilos of contraband. A police officer gets caught trying to steal drugs from the evidence room.
David talks disparagingly about his father, whom, he says, told him, "I better not catch you drinking"—while he held a beer. He also says his father used to sneak outside to smoke cigarettes during church.
Other Negative Elements
Javier's temptation to cheat at work comes in the form of a "test" from his new supervisors that, while realistic, can easily be construed as unethical. In exchange for a management position, two of his bosses ask Javier to falsify information on a manifest report. After Javier declines, the men tell him they were just trying to see if he was trustworthy, and state that six previous candidates failed.
Adam, on something of an ill-conceived lark, has Javier pretend to be a gangbanger in order to scare a guy he's just arrested for dealing.
Fatherhood, for all its significant rewards, can be pretty tiring business. As I'm writing this, I myself am quite weary. Last night my 1-year-old decided she wasn't going to sleep at 8:00 as she usually does. Instead, she was determined to keep playing … and playing. Rest? Sleep? Bed? She was having none of that. Four-plus hours later, she mercifully nodded off. Her 3-year-old sister, however, popped up crying three hours later, so you can guess what happened to my REM state.
I say this not looking for sympathy but to illustrate the reality that fatherhood (and motherhood, of course), is a job that's never done. In the moments when I lose my perspective or temper—and I do sometimes—it's tempting to feel sorry for myself, to whine, "What about my needs?"
So I saw a lot of myself in Adam Mitchell. He's doing his job at work and more or less getting the job done at home. He's in what the film labels "good enough" territory. Ultimately, though, he realizes that good enough isn't, that God longs for fathers to embrace a much higher calling.
It took tragedy to get Adam's onscreen attention. I sincerely hope that this film can serve that purpose for me … and many other sometimes flagging fathers. In a world full of pressure and distraction, Courageous reminds me that no matter how much I get caught up in my daily demands, there's nothing more precious or important than God's call for me to shepherd the little lambs He's lovingly, amazingly entrusted to my care.
Even when they absolutely refuse to go to sleep.
A postscript: More violent than previous Sherwood Baptist movies (Fireproof and Facing the Giants), Courageous isn't so much a movie for the whole family as it is a movie for the benefit of the whole family. Discernment should be used in deciding how young is too young to watch drug dealers shooting at and fighting with policemen.