In the specialty category “movies about movies,” one of the most durable subgenres is the heartwarming drama about how cinema transforms the character of a remote, conservative small town. In Stella Days—an adaptation of a Michael Doorley book—Martin Sheen plays a forward-thinking Catholic priest in 1950s Ireland, stationed in a poor parish where even electricity is greeted with suspicion. Denied his request to retire to a big city to study, and tasked by his bishop to raise money for a new church, Sheen makes plans to open a movie theater he calls “The Stella,” to benefit the diocese and give his congregation a greater sense of the outside world. But to pay for the equipment and to set up the space, Sheen has to borrow from funds already set aside for the new church, which worries his bosses. Also, local politician Stephen Rea, who’s up for re-election, sees an angle in standing against the moral turpitude of motion pictures. Meanwhile, young teacher Trystan Gravelle—a friend of Sheen’s—scandalizes his neighbors when he befriends a young mother whose husband lives and works out of town.
The broad strokes of Stella Days are extremely familiar: the uptight, gossipy rural types; the religious leader who struggles to serve multiple masters; the enchanting power of classic Hollywood; and so on. But within the square framework, screenwriter Antoine O’Flatharta and director Thaddeus O’Sullivan are able to convey a lot about the atmosphere and attitude of a community in transition. As pat as the storytelling is, Stella Days is strong when it gets into the subtle power struggles between the church, the state, and the citizens who are starting to hear about cultural advancements that their authorities aren’t yet prepared to recognize. But Stella Days’ strongest asset is Sheen, who plays a man of God who views his job less as a calling than a responsibility, but who can weather all the hassles from his bosses and his customers because he’s mature enough to know his own mind and soul.