This Valentine’s Day weekend the most-hyped date movie is, of course, Fifty Shades of Grey, based on the wildly popular, widely ridiculed, S&M erotic novel of the same name. But for those couples whose vision of romance doesn’t include bondage fantasies, there is a more traditional romantic movie alternative: Old-Fashioned, whose tagline is “Chivalry Makes a Comeback.”
Fifty Shades, of course, originated as the literarily underwhelming tale of a naïve young woman sucked into the gravitational sphere—and the sexual exploitation—of a wealthy, handsome businessman/control freak. The book was a mega-bestseller despite criticism of its juvenile writing quality and pornographic nature. Now the movie version is stirring controversy and being protested for eroticizing violence against women—not exactly the message most women want promoted on a day that celebrates committed love and romance.
Old-Fashioned offers a counterpoint to that. It was written, directed, and produced by its star Rik Swartzwelder, who plays Clay Walsh, a former carousing frat boy who found religion and now runs an antique shop in a small Midwestern town (the movie was filmed in Swartzwelder’s native Ohio). But now he wears his devoutness as emotional armor, and hides behind what our culture today considers archaic attitudes on love and romance—until a pretty young woman named Amber rents the apartment above his shop. His seriousness about faith, love, and relationships intrigues her, just as her free-spirited spontaneity challenges him to open up. Together, they “attempt the impossible,” as the synopsis says: “an ‘old-fashioned’ and God-honoring courtship in contemporary America.”
One movie trailer for Old-Fashioned cleverly and explicitly contrasts the romance withFifty Shades, pointing out that, instead of a “sexy corporate mogul” and “naïve ingénue,” this film stars a “sincere small businessman” and a “sweet Midwestern girl with a cat.” Instead of Fifty Shades’ “manipulation” and “exploitation,” it substitutes “healing” and “chivalry.” “Love is patient… love is kind,” the trailer concludes, echoing the beautiful Biblical passage. “Love is anything but grey. Love is old-fashioned.”
The movie is plainly targeted at underserved Christian movie audiences in what coastal elites call “flyover country,” the vast stretch of America between L.A. and New York. The baggage that too many low-budget faith-based films bear, however, despite their box office success, is that they suffer from over-earnest acting and heavy-handed messaging. Fortunately, Old-Fashioned may be unabashedly sentimental and religious, but based solely on the trailers, it doesn’t seem burdened by poor performances or writing.
As a low-budget indie venture with no recognizable stars, Old-Fashioned is fated to be crushed at the box office by Fifty Shades, which also has no big stars but benefits from studio backing and the incredible success of the novel. What these two films going head-to-head represents, however, is not simply a David-vs-Goliath box office showdown, but a clash of two very different perspectives on love and romance in contemporary American culture. Fifty Shades of Grey is slick pornography about seduction, domination, and emotional control; Old-Fashioned is a simple but emotionally compelling story of two vulnerable souls striving to overcome the obstacles to love. One aims to titillate the sexually curious, the other to touch hearts.
One manager of a two-screen independent cinema in Iowa Falls plans to offer Old-Fashioned alongside Fifty Shades of Grey in an attempt to strike up “a lively lobby conversation.” What would be even better is if the contrast between the two films on Valentine’s Day sparked a lively national conversation about our culture’s obsessive detachment of sex from the spirituality of love. If Old-Fashioned can reach enough couples looking for a romantic movie alternative to Fifty Shades’ degrading message, then perhaps it will help chivalry make a comeback after all.
(This article originally appeared here on Acculturated, 2/13/15)