Paul Shoulberg’s The Good Catholic is billed as a romantic comedy between a young priest, Daniel (Zachary Spicer), and a depressive agnostic musician, Jane (Wrenn Schmidt), but the film’s light surface belies a darker confrontation with religious doubt. For a faith-based film, it’s notable for giving equal narrative weight to the beliefs and emotions of its only non-Christian character, resisting the urge to patronize Jane by suggesting that her sorrow is symptomatic of her agnosticism and can be cured if she simply found her faith. Certainly it’s refreshing to see a film aimed at the Christian community present the allure of the secular world in an unbiased way and allow Daniel to truly struggle to determine his future within the church.
Despite The Good Catholic’s interesting macro approach compared to other films of its ilk, it’s far less successful on a micro level. The foundation of Jane and Daniel’s blooming relationship is particularly contrived, relying on the improbable conceit of a non-Catholic woman not only showing up for confession once but continuing to do so for no plausible reason until she falls in love with the priest. As Jane’s fascination with death never materializes into an active interest in Daniel’s own all-encompassing spiritual journey, it remains a nagging mystery both why she relentlessly pursues such a deeply devout man, especially given his vow of chastity, and why Daniel is so enamored with someone who’s so unconcerned with his own core beliefs.
Since Jane’s emotional struggles aren’t rendered sharply enough to ever fully reveal her interior world, the character operates more like a catalyst for Daniel, causing him to vacillate between embracing the priesthood and abandoning his position for love. The relationships between Daniel and the fellow priests in his parish, Victor (Danny Glover) and Ollie (John C. McGinley), are thus left to pick up the slack, and to middling results. McGinley brings a relaxed, off-the-cuff humor to Ollie that feels lived-in, but his character’s function is too limited; Ollie is little more than the sardonic, hip, and well-rounded priest who’s meant to starkly contrast the traditionally ascetic vision of men of the cloth that Victor upholds. Together, Victor and Ollie are largely symbolic riffs on the shoulder-perched angel and devil—one man giving Daniel the space to find his own way, the other constantly intervening to make certain he stays true to his commitment to the church.
The Good Catholic is admirable for its willingness to question the strict methodology of the church, but it still paints its characters, and specifically Daniel’s crisis of faith, in very broad strokes. Shoulberg’s failure to provide a compelling love story causes Daniel’s decision to potentially leave his life’s calling behind to feel particularly labored. And because Daniel carries his emotions so close to the vest, his seemingly torturous existential struggle remains as opaque and inscrutable as the reasons behind his burgeoning feelings for Jane. The film may succeed at expanding the boundaries of faith-based cinema, but it still feels obligatory in its approach.