Amber Hewson (played by Elizabeth Ann Roberts) and Clay Walsh (played by Rik Swartwelder)
Amber Hewson (played by Elizabeth Ann Roberts) and Clay Walsh (played by Rik Swartwelder)
Amber Hewson (played by Elizabeth Ann Roberts) and Clay Walsh (played by Rik Swartwelder)

The title of the film Old Fashioned has a double meaning. Old Fashioned refers the type of romance it purports to offer and to the both the name of the antiques shop owned by the hero of the story, Clay, who is played by Writer/Producer/Director Rik Swartzwelder. The idea of an old-fashioned romance not only has appealed in light of Fifty Shades of Grey but much of what passes for romance in modern movies as exemplified by the trailer for the raunchy She’s Funny That Way which ran during the previews.

Old Fashioned is a quirky romantic comedy drama and at the same time more than that. It takes the traditional elements of opposites attracting, the characters falling in love, and then being pulled apart, and manages to do something special with it.

A free-spirited woman named Amber (Elizabeth Roberts) moves to a small Ohio town and rents an apartment above Clay’s antique shop after a break up with a bad boyfriend. She’s constantly picking up stakes and moving on when the going gets tough.

Clay has lived in the same town his whole life. After wild days in college that included producing DVDs in the style of Girls Gone Wild, he became a Christian and lives by a strict code. Amber discovers this when he refuses to enter her apartment because he’s pledged the only woman he’ll ever be alone with is his future wife. When he does need to go in her apartment to fix something, he gives her blanket and makes her stand outside while he works. Amber takes an interest in Clay. The only time he comes up to her apartment is when something is broken, so she starts breaking things to increase the frequency of the visits. He finally agrees to date her, but on his terms.

The comedy of the film comes from the fact it fully recognizes how bizarre Clay’s views are in our twenty-first century world. He insists they get to know each other by obtaining premarital-counseling books and asking each other the questions in the books. He tests how she is with children by having her visit the children of one of his friends.

Amber is truly so open minded, she is willing to go along with his insistence on dates in public places, including locations like hardware stores and libraries. Elizabeth Roberts really shines in the film and she brings Amber to life as this fully developed character who can be very funny and quirky, but also has her own griefs and regrets. Roberts makes this film work. With the wrong actress playing Amber, this film would have been far less entertaining, given Swartzhelder’s portrayal of Clay was a bit stiff.

I think Swartzhelder’s  portrayal of Clay was intentionally that way. In one scene, Clay compares himself to the man Meg Ryan’s character left in Sleepless in Seattle. He’s a hard-working, earnest guy with cat allergies, not the debonair, charismatic leading man of Hollywood. I had to chuckle a bit at Roger Moore’s review for the Tribune News Service in which he challenged the film as unrealistic because Clay “lacks the charisma, charm or animation that would catch anybody’s eye.” You know you’ve taken Hollywood films too seriously when you view as unrealistic the idea that a man without the charm and charisma of Will Smith, Denzel Washington, Tom Hanks, or George Clooney could have a woman fall in love with him.

The supporting cast is generally strong, particularly Dorothy Silver as Clay’s Aunt Zella, a feisty lady who loves and admires her nephew. She is also brutally honest about his faults, which become more apparent as the film goes on. Her advice to Clay near the end of the film was absolutely beautiful.

A film like this easily could’ve become nothing more than a moralizing story about the evils of modern dating. Swartzhelder’s movie instead admits Clay’s living by the rules has become a joyless legalism. Clay didn’t ever expect to find a modern woman who would try to bare up under the demands of his old-fashioned philosophy. He expected to live his life alone in punishment for his past sins, leading to negative attitudes towards himself, others, and even God. At one point, he tells Amber he wishes he’d never opened the Bible because it showed him that he was accountable.

In one of the film’s great scenes, Amber talks to him after having read the Bible about forgiveness, and he says, “You make it sound so easy.”

She fires back, “You make it sound impossible.

Movies and messages on this topic can be problematic because they often offer more guilt than hope. Old Fashioned avoids it by leading its main characters and its audience back to the importance of the grace of God. It’s only in embracing that grace that Clay, Amber, or any of us can find hope and love.

In light of Clay’s issues, I doubt everything Clay does is intended as an exact example of the rules every relationship must follow, as many secular reviewers seem to think. Rather, the film makes us question the wisdom of a modern dating culture that’s founded on shallow artificiality. Clay points out that employers learn more about someone at a job interview than some people learn about the people they’re dating before committing themselves to the relationship physically. It challenges us to be more honest and less superficial in these premarital relationships.

Beyond its message, the film is incredibly well done. It manages to be funny, sweet, and also have great dramatic moments. The characters are well-developed with solid motivations. As a production, there’s a lot to commend. Old Fashioned is Swartzhelder’s first feature length film, and I think he’s a rare talent in the world of Christian film.

One thing Swartzhelder understands is that film is a visual medium. Too often, Christian filmmakers produce movies that are too talky. Old Fashioned is superb at communicating in pictures and facial expressions without speaking a single word. The film also looks very nice with its small Midwestern town cinematography. It has all kinds of nice touches, including the black and white title cards, which nicely set the tone for the film.

No one I’ve ever heard of performed any of the movie’s music, but it has a good soundtrack that works wonderfully with the film, including original music by Kaz Boyle.

The film did have too many scenes where they were cutting back and forth between the recent past and present. I also felt the acting was a bit weaker in the first fifteen minutes of the film.

Still, this is a very solid film. It’s a good romantic movie with a powerful message about not only old fashioned values but how God’s Grace can enable us to begin again.

Rating: 4.25 out of 5.0

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