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Doubt (2008)

Directed by:

John Patrick Shanley

Rating: 8/10

Running Time: 104 minutes

US Certificate: PG-13 UK Certificate: 15

Country: United States

Doubt started off life as a play, and even on the big screen, there’s still a stage-like feel to it; this is a film that values its dialogue, benefitting from the intimacy of the stage. It’s an actor’s movie, but not in the sense of big, showy dramatics or performances that showcase any one person—instead, it allows all involved to explore complex characters with hidden levels of motives while never giving anyone an easy out.

There’s trouble coming to St. Nicholas Catholic School in 1964—girls are wearing barrettes in their hair, students are sneaking in transistor radios, and the school has enrolled its first black student, Donald Miller (Joseph Foster II). Popular priest Father Flynn (Philip Seymour Hoffman) is trying to move his school and church into more modern times, but the rigid Head Nun, Sister Aloysius (Meryl Streep), is determined to keep everything as it has always been—and when Flynn’s relationship with Miller is called into question, the Sister vows to uncover the truth, no matter who she takes down in the process.

So, before I go anywhere with this, I’m going to just hand the plastic replica of an Oscar that I carry in my purse over to Viola Davis for her small but pivotal role as the mother of Donald Miller. She’s ridiculous good. In her two scenes, the only other person in the scene is Meryl Streep, and Davis steals the show. Her reaction to the heartbreaking news that her son may be the victim of sexual abuse is crushing, and it’s obvious why, as Davis has said in interviews, every African American actress in Hollywood (including Oprah) coveted this role. OK, moving on—the movie itself has a few problems, the most irksome of these being that many of the major emotional scenes are punctuated by lightning and other such dramatic weather. We don’t need to be persuaded by a storm how to feel, and especially for a film that does such an excellent job of letting its audience make up its mind about everything else, the overdone drama cues seem clumsy. That’s my only real gripe, though, because there’s just so much good to be found. Streep is no one-dimensional stereotype, and even when she’s being irrationally intolerant or detailing the pagan horrors of “Frosty the Snowman,” there’s something in her we grudgingly admire. Hoffman is downright loveable as Father Flynn, yet he still manages to never fully exonerate himself of wrongdoing, masterfully inflecting every line with just enough guilt and just enough righteousness. Sister James is the “us” in the movie, waffling back and forth, convinced by whomever talks to her last, and Amy Adams is the epitome of idealistic naivety. Don’t be intimidated by the weighty subject matter or a character roster full of nuns and priests—Doubt plays out almost like the best ever episode of Law & Order, yet never gives us a verdict.

It's Got: Great acting, Complex writing, A new look at “Frosty the Snowman”.

It Needs: An Oscar win for Viola Davis, None of that silly weather nonsense.

Alternatives:

The Boys of St. Vincent, The Children's Hour

Summary

Despite a few too many lightning crashes, Doubt showcases its actors in complex characters that let us decide for ourselves what truth we value the most.

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