Bob Nelson’s The Confirmation is bookended by two confessions by eight-year-old Anthony (Jaeden Lieberher). In the first, he strains to come up with something worthy of penance eight weeks after his last confession. By the next afternoon, he has a roll call of sins to confess after spending an eventful day with his father, Walt (Clive Owen), filled with lying and stealing. We’re meant to understand that it isn’t through the religious ceremony of the title, but through those sins—or, more precisely, through learning that committing such “sins” is sometimes the right thing to do—that Anthony makes his first meaningful step toward manhood. That’s an interesting premise for a coming-of-age story, but it’s undermined by the film’s occasionally dubious ethics and its tendency to soft-pedal the dangerous situations it sets up.
Walt is a very good father, loving, even-tempered, and full of advice and life lessons. He’s also a seriously underemployed alcoholic who endangers his son by taking him on a tour of dicey locations and violent showdowns involving a meth addict, a pawnbroker, a sociopathic teenager, and more, in a desperate search for the carpentry tools that were stolen from the bed of Walt’s pickup at the start of their day together. There are presumably pretty places to be found in this location, where mountains are occasionally visible in the background (license plates make it clear that the film is set in Washington state), but the dirt-pocked lawns, modest houses, and scrubby streets where most of the action takes place are shot with a resolute realism.
The only physical beauty in the film is in the faces of the characters, and even that’s downplayed. As Anthony’s mother and Walt’s ex-wife Bonnie, Maria Bello looks wary and careworn, her hair pulled back into a functional knot, while Walt’s lumbering walk, stubble-flecked cheeks, and disheveled hair make Owen look as unglamorous as it’s possible for him to look, the lighting often emphasizing lines carved deep into his brow to make his face look tired.
But despite those nods toward gritty authenticity, all the edges get smoothed out a little too easily in The Confirmation’s PG-13 walk on the wild side. The delirium tremens that grip Walt look ghastly, but they last just a few hours and leave him unfazed, and the fights both father and son get into end without incident or injury, though guns are drawn more than once. What’s more, while the lying Walt and Anthony generally seems justified, some of their sins are unnecessary and hurtful or simply self-serving, like Anthony taking money from his broke father’s car ashtray to buy a burger or Walt lying to the cop who stops him while he’s driving Bonnie’s car.
The filmmakers make honesty look like a fool’s game by having Anthony’s well-meaning but hopelessly naïve stepfather (Matthew Modine) proclaim that the key to a good relationship is to “just be honest with each other. That’s what the experts say.” Such moments undercut the worldly realism the film aspires to, making it feel a little cynical and even more contrived.