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I am not a movie critic, nor am I the son of a movie critic (with apologies to Amos 7:14).

However, I do know what I enjoy and what I don’t. My taste in films sometimes coincides with the accolades that accompany “critical acclaim,” but very often it does not. I know what ambushes my emotions, thrusts a lance through my heart, and sends tears cascading down my cheeks. I know what challenges my thinking and exposes my prejudices. I know what triggers my moral indignation, sometimes only to discover that I have been baited into revealing my own hypocrisy and double standards. I also know what I simply cannot stomach in regard to sheer inanity, coarseness, bloodbaths, senseless strings of profanity that are passed off as a script, and soft (and not so soft) porn that masquerades as a mainstream film. I enjoy the quirkiness of independent films, the often unlikely subject matters of documentaries, and the occasional no-brainer escapism of a good science fiction or superhero flick.

So, do I see a lot of movies? Not really; not anymore. When my wife, Kim, lamented a couple of weeks ago that Fifty Shades of Grey was invading nearly every screen in town on Valentine’s Day, my response was “What’s Fifty Shades of Grey?” I am so out of the cultural loop that, not only had I not heard any of the hype and controversy surrounding the film, I had no idea that there was a trilogy of best-selling erotic romance novels that gave rise to this first film adaptation, with a sequel planned for release in 2016. Oh, joy!

With Kim out-of-town for a few days visiting friends in Dallas, she suggested that I see a movie on Thursday, my usual day out of the office each week. The prospects weren’t very promising. Scouring the options on a movie date the previous week, we had quickly narrowed the possibilities down to one movie, Still Alice, which features an Academy Award-winning performance by Julianne Moore, who brilliantly portrays the title character in this story about early-onset Alzheimer’s disease. It is a great film, but one that provides a solid emotional kick to the gut.

In my discouraging online cinematic search on Thursday, I failed to notice that McFarland, USA was playing. Inspirational, feel-good movies about underdog athletes constitute a can’t-miss genre for me! I’ll likely be seeing it soon.

Just as I was about to abandon a trip to the theater for a much more needful visit to the gym, I spotted Old Fashioned. It was rated PG-13, and the synopsis read:

A romantic-drama, “Old Fashioned” centers on Clay Walsh, a former frat boy who gives up his reckless carousing and now runs an antique shop in a small Midwestern college town. There, he has become notorious for his lofty and outdated theories on love and romance. When Amber Hewson, a free-spirited young woman with a restless soul, drifts into the area and rents the apartment above his shop, she finds herself surprisingly drawn to his noble ideas, which are new and intriguing to her.  And Clay, though he tries to fight and deny it, simply cannot resist being attracted to her spontaneous and passionate embrace of life. Ultimately, Clay must step out from behind his relational theories and Amber must overcome her own fears and deep wounds as the two of them, together, attempt the impossible: an “old-fashioned” courtship in contemporary America.

The title and synopsis of the film were enough to draw me to the theater, probably because I consider myself rather old-fashioned in many ways and an archaic, naïve romantic. As I sat alone in the theater watching the previews, I seriously thought I had managed a private matinée screening. Four more patrons ultimately took their seats before the movie started. It was apparent that no box office records were going to be shattered that day.

I won’t rehearse the entire storyline for you. You can read numerous reviews online, replete with reader comments, from both secular and religious sources. As you might imagine, mainstream film critics largely panned the film, while audiences generally loved it. The Rotten Tomatoes website reflects a critics’ score of 21% and an audience rating of 94% on its Tomatometer. This reflects the usual ratings chasm that is created by faith-based films. See for an even-handed secular review and Plugged In (thanks, Jeff!) for a thorough Christian review.

While I know the international film community is not holding its collective breath to find out what Tim Pyles thought about Old Fashioned, I found it to be a refreshingly sweet, endearing, affirming, redemptive love story, so desperately needed in a world that is enamored and obsessed by a Fifty Shades philosophy of love and sexuality.

Was it painfully slow in places? Yes. Could writer and director Rik Swartzwelder have found an actor other than himself to play the role of Clay a little less broodingly? Yes. Was there an awkward “corn” and “cheese” factor in places? Yes, but quite bearably so.

On the positive side of the ledger, Old Fashioned was beautifully and creatively filmed. Again, I know nothing about cinematography, but other faith-based films I have seen have had an amateurish, B movie look and feel to them. Not this one.

There was an unexpected thematic edginess to the film, a reflection of Swartzwelder’s willingness to deal with real world issues, temptations, and challenges to Christian faith. Nothing is graphically portrayed, but such realities were not naively ignored. The lead characters both acknowledge having sexual histories, and each faces an intense moment of sexual temptation. The pain and tragedy of domestic abuse, demeaning attitudes toward women, cultural attitudes about cohabitation and promiscuity, alcohol use (both moderate and excessive), attitudes about Christians: all of these factor into the story. There is no profanity at all in the film, unless you prudishly consider “crap” and “Good Lord” to be beyond the pale.

The film’s spiritual message and underpinnings (belief in God, salvation in Jesus, Scripture, true love, abstinence, grace, repentance, redemption) are evident enough, but never overplayed in heavy-handed fashion. There is a sense that real truth exists, but the characters occupy various places in their conception of it in their own journey of faith. Again unexpectedly, the film offers insights into how Christian faith and efforts for personal morality are often perceived to be (and sometimes actually are) nothing more than pietistic self-righteousness.

Near the end of the film, Aunt Zella’s brief, loving, and convicting sermon to Clay about grace, forgiveness, and our failed attempts at goodness proved to be worth the price of the ticket.

Clay and Amber’s love story reminds us that love and sexuality can be driven and directed by a standard that is higher and holier than that of our fallen, confused, and hurting world; not perfectly, but with passion, boundaries, and conviction.

See Old Fashioned if you have the opportunity. As an independent film in limited release, it may not be “in a theater near you,” so you may have to wait until the DVD is available. Take your teenage children to see it with you. They already think you are embarrassingly uncool, and dragging them along with you ultimately won’t make that fact any worse. They may groan in a few places (as may you), but it will give them a refreshingly different vision of what God intends for them, and it may help them set their sights much higher than the lowest common denominator, cultural standards of love and sexuality.

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May 2023