Though its story feels a bit like self-conscious hokum, Saint Ralph has the means to engage through its notions of "faith, purity, and prayer."
The modestly budgeted film from writer-director Michael McGowan set mainly in Hamilton, Ontario has been rescheduled for theatrical release from early Spring due to the nature of the Terri Schiavo situation and thematic, narrative relevance to Danny Boyle's visually resonant, heartwarming Millions.
McGowan, who won the Detroit Marathon 20 years ago, combines long-distance running with the gravity of a teen's mother in a way that works fairly well from the vantage point of a boys' Catholic School.
Adam Butcher is a fresh new face in the title role of an unusual quest to win the Boston Marathon to get his mom out of a coma. His 14-year-old Ralph Walker happens to live alone in his family house without those in the school knowing about it. His good friend, Chester Jones, an appealing Michael Kanev, often has him over since his mother's condition has become comatose and his father was a casualty of war.
Besides Butcher, the cast brings heart to a timeless tale that avoids the typical Hollywood ending. The pubescent phase of Ralph isn't lost in his tragic circumstances, enamored with Claire (Tamara Hope of Shall We Dance?), a devout neighbor who wants to be a nun. As far as her religious nature allows, she flirts with Ralph, telling him "don't you just love Holy Week?"
Ralph's lack of piety becomes more prevalent after confessing to carnal sins while cutting the lawn when he glances into the women's shower room in a public swimming pool up against those underwater nozzles. A contamination sign is posted and he is in the doghouse of senior clergyman Father Fitzpatrick, a salty Gordon Pinsent, very good in The Shipping News. The austere Father Fitz remands Ralph to join the cross-country running team for his rectitude.
Campbell Scott (Big Night, The Secret Lives of Dentists) brings his actorly sophistication to Father Hibbert who teaches Nietzsche in his religious class speaking of "the anarchist and Christian share a common origin." Scott plays well off of Butcher, as Hibbard, the cross-country team coach and one-time Olympic runner who sows the seed in Ralph when jesting about the Boston Marathon and that it would take a miracle (like the loaves and fishes) for someone on the team to win it. A hard fall on his tray in the cafeteria provides the key impetus for Ralph with a man in a Santa Claus outfit awakening him to his new purpose in life.
Hibbert finds redemption in Ralph's determination to win the 1954 Boston Marathon to bring his mother back to him. Defying the mandate of the starchy Father Fitz, he personally sets a demanding training schedule with trial runs even in rainy conditions. A win in a local race puts him in the consciousness of the locals and the press and Ralph's message from God.
The educator in Hibbert and innocent in the boy who can scheme when necessary brings some sensitivity and depth to the important characters in a simplistic story. Butcher has some emotional scenes with Nurse Alice, a no-nonsense woman with her own workout regiment who helps him with weight training. Jennifer Tilly, a Canadian native, shades Alice with mannerisms that someone like Ralph really only picks up on, and their unforced friendship is more than a sidebar.
In terms of its look and recreating life in Hamilton over half a century ago, Saint Ralph is sculpted to provide an uncomplicated nostaglia enhanced by location and character authenticity. There are no special effects used in making the past vibrant and the mood affecting as Ralph's life in the Catholic environment is realistically dealt with as well as the bonding between the personality of runners.
While the musical interludes become a bit repetitive and overbearing in the final stretch to ring truth to the religious fervor, McGowan keeps it all from running on empty. With Father Hibbert on his bicycle behind the enduring, dedicated saint in waiting, there is reason to believe in this treacly, incredulous track to the heart.