As so often happen with family movies that want desperately to warm the heart, “Saint Ralph” strives much too hard to be uplifting . The feel-good tale, about a Canadian Catholic high schooler in the early 1950s who aims to win the Boston marathon in order to effect the miracle that, he believes, will bring his mother out of a potentially fatal illness, pushes itself as strenuously as its young protagonist, but ultimately collapses in a welter of sentiment, cuteness and whimsy.
Newcomer Adam Butcher plays Ralph Walker, a gangly, smart-alecky student at an academy presided over by stern, no-nonsense headmaster Father Fitzpatrick (Gordon Pinsent), who tries to force the boy into line by making him join the cross-country team coached by young Father Hibbert (Campbell Scott), an independent-minded sort who’s introduced his classes to Nietzsche, much to Fitzpatrick’s chagrin. The priests know that Ralph’s father, a war hero, is deceased and that his mother (Shauna MacDonald) is hospitalized. What’s they aren’t aware of is that his grandparents, with whom he claims to be living, are also long dead–and that the boy is trying to make it on his own, awaiting the day when his mother will return home. Ralph’s regular visits to his mom, under the watchful eye of supportive nurse (Jennifer Tilly), become more painful after Mrs. Walker suffers a setback and slips into a coma from which she may never awake. When Ralph’s imperfect theological understanding leads him to conclude that a miracle could save his mother and Hibbert offhandedly remarks that it would take a miracle for any of his runners to win the Boston marathon, the boy conflates the two and concludes that if he hunkers down to his training, which he’d heretofore treated as an unwelcome burden, and wins the famous race, that would constitute the miracle needed to insure his mother’s recovery. Fitzpatrick considers the idea blasphemy and Hibbert initially dismisses it as well, but as Ralph demonstrates his dedication, the younger priest–who, happily, just happens to be a former would-be Olympian track star–agrees to train him, causing a further rift between the clerics. The remainder of “Saint Ralph” concentrates on Ralph’s startling improvement as a runner, building to the inevitable big finish in Beantown. But Michael McGowan’s script takes time for digressions–a major one dealing with Ralph’s crush on pretty Claire Collins (Tamara Hope), whose desire to be a nun makes her an unlikely date but an intense (if overly imaginative) theological advisor. And along the way to his last lap Ralph must naturally overcome a variety of obstacles–as when the truth about his grandparents is discovered by Fitzpatrick (a development that oddly leads nowhere, as it turns out) or Ralph, in deep depression one night, actually gets drunk and burns down his house. Luckily the boy has the support of not only Hibbert, Nurse Alice and Claire, but also of his best buddy Chester (Michael Kanev), a precocious tyke whose penmanship skills allow him to forge excuses for Ralph that fool even Fitzpatrick.
There’s a distinctly old-fashioned flavor to “Saint Ralph,” not merely because of its period trappings (not always exact–the Holy Thursday service Ralph attends at the Catholic Church is liturgically suspect for the time, though not enough of it is shown to be certain), which look more museum-like than real–but because the script, apart from a few bits about the boys’ sexual awakening, might have served as the basis for a Disney live-action movie from the 1950s; it’s rife with those moments of cute exaggeration and saccharine sentimentality that proliferated in kids’ movies from fifty years ago. And while Scott offers a nice mixture of intensity and bemusement as Father Hibbert, the rest of the cast isn’t terribly impressive. Butcher is a personable youngster who certainly brings a sense of ingenuousness to Ralph, but his artlessness often slips into amateurishness, while Tilly coasts by on her smile, restraining her goofiness, and Pinsent struggles to bring some depth to the cardboard role of the harsh taskmaster–and doesn’t really succeed. Hope comes on too strong (a defect of the writing, which makes Claire almost a strident fanatic), but Kanev brings some charm to nervous-nelly Chester. The remainder of the cast gets by–barely. You have to respect the effort to create an early fifties ambience on what must have been a modest budget–production designer Matthew Davies, costumer Anne Dixon and cinematographer Rene Ohashi did yeoman service in that regard–but the overall feel of the film is still more of a waxworks than an authentic recreation.
But it would have probably taken a miracle for a movie with this script and sensibilty to succeed, and despite what happens to Ralph, those are in short supply these days–at least on theatre screens. By rights it should have been titled “Saint Jude,” because he–as is noted at one point in the picture–is the patron of hopeless cases.