Amber Hewson has a curious way of deciding where she’s going to live next: looking at the gas gauge in her car. Every so often, when she’s feeling fidgety, she’ll just pack up her stuff, hit the open road and drive until the needle points at empty. That tells her when to coast into whatever anonymous burgh she’s near and start the next chapter of her life. It’s a pattern that’s already propelled her across 14 states.
This time, her destination is an archetypal everytown nestled in rural Ohio. A cursory glance at the classifieds after landing a job at a flower shop yields exactly what she’s looking for: a cheap furnished apartment.
Amber’s prospective new residence sits atop an antique shop dubbed Old Fashioned. Before long, the store’s owner, a quietly intense thirtysomething bachelor, is showing Amber up the stairs to check it out.
Nothing odd about that. But then Clay Walsh refuses to enter the apartment with her, loitering on the landing outside as she wonders what’s up with this landlord. “Don’t take it personally,” he explains. “I made a promise—to never be alone with any woman who’s not my wife.”
Amber misunderstands, thinking Clay’s married. He tells her he isn’t. She’s amused. She’s intrigued. She decides to stay.
When her gas stove won’t light, Clay shows up to fix it … handing her a blanket to keep warm with while she waits outside. She thinks he’s joking. He’s not. “Open that door and I raise your rent,” he scolds when she starts to come back inside.
Still, the physical space separating them doesn’t keep them from talking. And talking slowly kindles something between this free-spirited woman and conviction-clad man. Something good. Something romantic. Something old-fashioned.
Clay Walsh is the epitome of a gentlemanly, chivalrous man. He’s crafted for himself a long list of convictions about how he intends to relate to any woman who might one day become his wife: not being alone together, not kissing until after saying “I do,” not doing anything that might expose himself or any woman in his life to undue temptation or emotional distress. Those convictions are undergirded by his Christian faith … and they’re also a hard-won response to the wild life he once lived. (More on that later.)
His path proves to be a positive one as he learns to balance his guilt and shame with forgiveness and hope for the future. He takes things very, very slowly with Amber. And with righteousness always on his mind, we see him grapple with and finally overcome the hesitancy he feels about moving forward at all due to his deep fears about making more big mistakes.
Clay’s great aunt, Zella, wisely and winsomely tries to help him differentiate between faith that is life-giving and an expression of it that’s emotionally claustrophobic. She says, “I admire you so much. In all my years, I’ve never known anyone work as hard at being good. [But] the way you carry ancient, crusty, useless guilt like a trained pet poodle you want to show off, like an excuse—let it go. What are you waiting for? How long? You are loved. You are so loved! Oh, my child, you are. Listen to me, Clay! Enough.”
In a parallel way, Amber longs for love in the wake of a disastrous marriage and a string of unfulfilling romances. She needs to know that a man who’s interested in her really wants to be with her. And, eventually, Clay does learn to accept Amber for who she is, with her completely returning the favor. It’s a journey for them that requires emotional risk, a slow forging of trust, offered forgiveness and letting go of past hurts.
Clay, obviously, believes deeply in the sanctity of marriage. And when his good friends David and Lisa (who have a child together) decide to make their move from cohabitation to wedlock, Clay happily applauds them.
Clay and Amber have barely commenced their connection when spiritual issues begin to pop up. Amber says of herself, “I’m spiritual. I believe in God, but it’s not like I believe everything in the Bible or anything.” Clay is way past that point, having given himself wholly to Christ sometime after his crazy college days. When Amber blurts out, “Don’t even tell me you found Jesus or something!” Clay says, “More like He found me.” He says that when he read the Bible for the first time, “I couldn’t make fun of it any more. I felt accountable for the first time in my life. And it was genuine and it was real.” When Amber asks if he has any favorite parts of the Bible, Clay quotes, “Old things have passed away. Behold, all things have become new.”
Then, flipping the spiritual coin, the film shows us how Clay’s determined drive to control himself and his life—to try to be perfect now after messing so many things up then—has alienated him from other believers. He admits that he quit going to church because “I kind of had my fill of the hypocrite show.” But his aunt challenges him to not see his faith as only a self-improvement tool, scolding him, “I, I, I, I, I—stop twisting it. Wake up. Get over yourself. You and your pain. Stop using the grace of God as a brick wall. Do you get this upset over children starving? Over anyone else’s suffering? … There’s no goodness without mercy. There’s no virtue without forgiveness.”
When Amber, who has never been to church and wants to experience it with Clay, asks to go, he takes her. We watch as children sing, “God loves everyone the same/He knows your giggle/And He knows your name.” It’s implied that Amber finally finds our Savior for herself later in the film, tearfully quoting Jesus’ words, “Never will I leave you, never will I forsake you.” She then says to Clay at a critical point, “I came here ready to forgive you no matter what. Isn’t that the idea? Isn’t that the Good News?”
“So you won’t be alone with a woman?” Amber probes when Clay first tells her he won’t come into the apartment with her.
“That’s the plan.”
When their conversation turns to dating, Clay tells her, “I don’t believe dating trains us to be good husbands and wives, you know, life partners. It just trains us to be good dates. That’s it. It trains us to be skilled in the superficial.”
And so, even as friendship turns to romance, we see Clay flexing only in very small ways when it comes to the sexual boundaries he’s set for himself. He holds Amber’s hand in church. But he never so much as kisses her on the lips, even when he proposes marriage. When Amber quips early on that not having sex doesn’t necessarily make a man a good husband, Clay responds, “No, but learning to control myself might. I mean, I don’t know if you know this, but half of all marriages experience infidelity. I never want to be divorced. Love should come first, not the other way around.” He also paraphrases 1 Corinthians 6:19, saying, “Your body is a temple.” And he philosophizes, “I know making you wait out in the cold wrapped in a blanket seems ridiculous, but a lot of the boundaries that used to be common, that we’ve thrown away, they’re there to protect us.”
We do eventually hear about Clay’s and Amber’s checkered pasts. Spending their “dates” going through a premarital counseling book, they’re prompted to talk about their sexual history. Amber counts five men that she’s had sex with—including one she was briefly married to at the age of 19—and several more that she’s done “heavy petting” with. Clay says, “I can’t even remember how many girls I’ve been with.” The life he lived, he mourns, was one in which he held little regard for himself or his sexual partners. And he ended up badly hurting a serious girlfriend named Kelly by having sex with someone else after she refused to have sex with him.
We learn that he and his buddies made a series of “uncensored” Girls Gone Wild-style videos. We see a DVD’s cover (there’s no nudity) and watch Amber as she cries while viewing a few minutes of one. And a couple of guilt-ridden flashbacks from Clay’s perspective reveal drunken young women flirting and partying. (We mostly see faces.) Clay renounced all that when he came to Christ, but his buddy Brad went on to become a popular, sexist and womanizing radio shock jock (in the mold of Howard Stern). Brad, going by the radio handle Lucky Chucky, is now as cynical and debauched as Clay is virtuous.
[Spoiler Warning] Sexual temptation comes for both Amber and Clay late in the story. Each is faced with the choice of whether they’ll sleep with someone else. Neither gives in, though the struggle is shown to be hard. (But never, onscreen, in graphic or even sensual ways.) Temptation also comes for David at his bachelor party when a stripper dressed as a security guard shows up. As soon as she takes off her scarf in a seductive way, Clay confronts his friend, asking him to stop her performance, begging him to consider the feelings of his bride-to-be. (Clay then leaves the room, and David does make her quit.)
The stripper’s bra can be seen through her white shirt. And Amber wears some off-the-shoulder tops. We see the very top of her shoulders as she slides down into her bathwater. Brad brags about his sexual indiscretions on his radio show, making sexist comments and blasting romantic worldviews.
Clay gets into a very short back-and-forth shoving match with another man. We hear that Amber’s previous boyfriend was physically abusive. (Her arm is in a cast at the beginning of the story.)
Aunt Zella flippantly exclaims “good lord” and “my lord.” Clay good-naturedly calls her an old “bag.”
Amber and others drink wine, beer and/or hard liquor in several scenes. At a particularly discouraging moment, Amber goes drinking at a bar, seemingly intent on getting herself good and drunk. Flashbacks show partying.
Intentionally released in theaters on the same weekend as Fifty Shades of Grey to try to serve as counterprogramming, or even an antidote to that film’s fiercely unhealthy take on sexual expression, Old Fashioned works hard to live up to its title. But it works just as hard to be a really good (in every sense of that word) romance. Clay Walsh’s deeply held convictions about dating, sex and marriage are anachronistic outliers in our libertine, anything-goes age, a time in which even Christians all too easily share themselves sexually long before they’re married. And yet he wears his growing love for Amber on his sleeve in a way that might warm even the most jaded among us.
But the movie doesn’t stop there. And it never implies that this finally happy couple will live happily ever after without doing the hard work of two becoming one. Clay and Amber are no two-dimensional stand-ins who merely move through the motions of a rose-colored courtship. Rik Swartzwelder, who stars as Clay while also writing and directing Old Fashioned, skillfully uses the character of Zella to help our hero realize that spiritual performance and piety, if not properly directed and balanced, can turn your gaze inward instead of upward and outward. Even though he’s had a relationship with God for years, Clay still needs to hear and internalize the Gospel message of grace in order to pursue Amber wholeheartedly. It’s Amber, while not fully grasping onto faith until nearly the end, who in some ways has a better understanding of grace and forgiveness than Clay does.
Such a complex portrayal of these two characters’ growing and emerging faith, merged with the fact that both have made significant mistakes with regard to their sexual choices before meeting each other, adds a layer of realism to Old Fashioned that’s sometimes missing from Christian movies. It’s a grown-up reality that should keep the film well away from the eyes of younger children. But it’s never gritty enough in the execution to unduly repel families with older teens as parents seek to carefully guide them through the world of love and sex and relationships.
That’s because amid all the complexity of grappling with life and love and faith, Old Fashioned never wavers in its old-fashioned convictions that Clay so laudably latches onto. The result is a unusual thematic emphasis on purity and self-control coupled with forgiveness and grace … right there in the middle of a grand romance.
After serving as an associate editor at NavPress’ Discipleship Journal and consulting editor for Current Thoughts and Trends, Adam now oversees the editing and publishing of Plugged In’s reviews as the site’s director. He and his wife, Jennifer, have three children. In their free time, the Holzes enjoy playing games, a variety of musical instruments, swimming and … watching movies.