'The Confirmation': Film Review

A winning look at fathering during a rough patch.

Clive Owen stars in the directing debut of 'Nebraska' screenwriter Bob Nelson.

An alcoholic father survives a tough 24 or so hours in The Confirmation, Bob Nelson's light drama about the attempt to pass some values on from father to son despite circumstances unconducive to good parenting. A broken-family portrait refreshingly free of bad guys — well, mostly — it turns on an admirably ragged performance by Clive Owen as the divorcee trying to provide his own sort of life lessons to augment the Catholic ritual his ex-wife has planned for their son. A top-notch cast should help the picture at the box office despite an underwhelming marketing campaign. (Promo materials promising a "wildly funny" "adventure of a lifetime" do no one any good.)

A carpenter who hasn't had a gig in a while, Walt (Owen) gets evicted at the worst moment: Just as he has taken custody of son Anthony (Midnight Special's Jaeden Lieberher) for the night so his ex-wife Bonnie (Maria Bello) and her new husband (Matthew Modine) can go on an overnight retreat.

Walt was given one instruction before the handoff: If he drinks again while caring for Anthony, Bonnie is going to stop letting him see his son. So before he learns he has been locked out of his house, Walt drives straight to a bar. He's looking for work and may be drinking soda, but his iffy decision to leave his child waiting in a truck outside a tavern sets the tone for this day, where one man's self-reliance-building is another's neglect.

Walt gets a gig he's supposed to start on Monday, only to learn the specialized tools he'll need have been stolen. So father and son go on a mostly misguided attempt to track them down. Several people in a row point them to third parties, each of whom "knows everything that goes on in this town." One, Patton Oswalt's Drake, is especially ill-informed — but so insistent on helping, and on projecting manly competence, that the film almost does become a comedy briefly. (He's not onscreen very long, but the character's a classic Oswalt creation.)

When not playing detective, Walt tries to instill in Anthony an attention to the physical world around him, an appreciation that everything he uses was made by someone. He's righteously indignant that Bonnie's husband has not cared better for the house he put so much work into. He's laissez-faire about the boy's churchgoing, but insistent on one truth: "Bad workmanship is a sin."

This kind of virtuous talk is poignant coming from a man who, throughout the film, is a half-step away from going on a bender and who has been so bad at the upkeep of his day-to-day affairs. Owen's bruised masculinity offers his co-star much to respond to: Lieberher's self-contained performance as an alert, well-behaved boy who's ready to commit a few sins to help his father demonstrates more depth than should be expected for an actor who made his feature debut two years ago. The two have an understated rapport, and the preservation of this threatened relationship is a much more compelling task than any search for a box of chisels and saws.

Distributor: Saban Films
Production company: Bungalow Media + Entertainment
Cast: Clive Owen, Jaeden Lieberher, Maria Bello, Matthew Modine, Patton Oswalt, Robert Forster, Stephen Tobolowsky, Tim Blake Nelson
Director-screenwriter: Bob Nelson
: Bob Nelson, Todd Hoffman
Executive producers: Robert Friedman, Robert Halmi Jr., Jim Reeve, Shawn Williamson
Director of photography: Terry Stacey
designer: Chris August
Costume designer: Sheila White
Editor: Steven Rasch
Composer: Jeff Cardoni
Casting director: Nancy Nayor

Rated PG-13, 100 minutes