Thanks to its understated elegance and surpassing central performance, this modest, too-eagerly schematic period drama is more engrossing than it has a right to be. The latest gloss on the gently condescending retro-modernist missionary genre—in which an urbane hero preaches the good news of progress but runs flush up against a wall of reactionary rural backwardness—Stella Days takes place in 1956, when electrification was finally brought to the boggy Irish boonies. A Rome-educated, American-acculturated intellectual, Father Daniel Barry (Martin Sheen), tries to enlighten his parish in both literal and cultural ways—most brazenly via a passion plot to open a town cinematheque—but is opposed at every turn by Brendan (Stephen Rea), a fearmongering isolationist with political aspirations. Too many subplots and binary conflicts crowd the narrative (all cleanly on point about the dark-versus-light theme), but director Thaddeus O'Sullivan puts it over with a gentle hand, and most importantly, establishes an appropriately ruminative tone for Sheen's embattled, bottled intensity. One of the most shamefully underused talents Hollywood has ever produced, Sheen gets a rare shot at captaining a film here, and he turns this wee cozy yarn into something significantly felt. Behind a mask of unsettled benevolence, and through those fierce Sheen eyes, his inescapably lonely priest glares at the world with an apt mix of fervor and disgust, hope and despair.
Get the Film & TV Newsletter
Stay up to date on the best new movies with our critics' latest reviews, interviews and trailers for the films coming to a theater near you each week.