In the Roman Catholic church, one of the primary requirements for sainthood is that the individual be chiefly responsible for a miracle. And while 14-year-old Ralph Walker has a ways to go on the other requirements—umm, make that a cross-country marathon—he's determined to bring about a miracle because someone remarked that it would take one to bring his mother out of a coma. Just as one of the priests said, offhandedly, that it would be a miracle if one of the boys would win the Boston Marathon. And so Ralph puts two-and-two together and sets his sights on winning a race after being only recently introduced to the sport of long-distance running.
"Saint Ralph" is a surprisingly delightful film that's a combination of the standard adolescent shenanigans-and-survival, life-threatening illnesses, and striving athlete sub-genres. Newcomer Adam Butcher, with his big ears and wide eyes, is a bona fide screen presence who captures your attention and your heart as a boy whose father was apparently killed during WWII and who also has no surviving grandparents—meaning, if his mother dies, he'd be an orphan.
Somehow Ralph falls between the cracks of the Canadian social services system, because no one looks out for him after his mother enters the hospital. He's left on his own to muck about the house and continue to work up a month's worth of sins to confess each week, the most common of them his testosterone-driven fantasies about sex. He's so preoccupied by sex that it prompts the priest who hears his confession to exclaim that he's a "pervert" . . . or was it the older boys who pranked him by cramming into the booth and playing priest?
The story is set in Hamilton, Ontario, where we find Ralph wearing his schoolboy's uniform by day and trying his dad's military jacket and pipe on for size by night. At Saint Magnus High School he pals around with a red-headed geek and tries to keep from getting picked on or made fun of for his legendary unfulfilled sex drive. The remedy? Crotchety, old-school Father Fitzpatrick (Gordon Pinsent), who's the tough-love villain in this film, sentences him to run cross country under the tutelage of Father Hibbert (Campbell Scott, "The Exorcism of Emily Rose"), a younger and more sympathetic figure who once ran the marathon for Canada in the Olympics. At first the young priest is reluctant to work with Ralph, but the more he sees the boy's determination, the more he's determined to help him succeed. And when Ralph presses forward to the starting line of the 1954 Boston Marathon, against the explicit warnings of Father Fitzpatrick, and his geeky friend sees to it that the whole school knows about it, the narrative turns as rousing as any sports film that builds to a critical moment.
"Saint Ralph" offers a wonderful depiction of life in 1950s Canada, as much as that other movie with a potty-mouthed precocious lad—that leg-lamp-loving Ralphie—does of life in 1940s America. It also reinforces that, whatever the era, one thing remains constant: the rush of hormones that forces adolescent boys to come-of-age whether they like it or not. With just two TV credits under his belt, the gangly Butcher has the perfect blend of irrational confidence and awkwardness on-screen, as does the actress who plays the focus of his attentions, Tamara Hope (as Claire). In scenes together, they are so natural and they so perfectly capture the innocence of cheerful sinners that it carries over to the tone of the entire picture.
In a way, it's too bad that Shauna MacDonald didn't get more screen time as Ralph's mother, Emma, because early scenes before she went into a coma were both savvy and tender. But the way the screenplay was set up, "Saint Ralph" ends up being a subtle fable about the effect that children's behavior has on the quality of family life. It's only fitting that Ralph try to bring his mom out of her coma with a miracle, because his attempt to tell her about why he ended up getting caught masturbating in a public pool was arguably what put her in the coma in the first place. It's also too bad that Nurse Alice didn't get a bigger part, because all the screenplay allows Jennifer Tilly to do is maintain a benign version of the consistently straight-faced Nurse Ratchett, with a touch of Bill Clinton's "I feel your pain." Those deficiencies aside, "Saint Ralph" is a geode waiting to be cracked open and discovered.
Video: Mastered in High Definition and presented in 1.85:1 anamorphic widescreen, "Saint Ralph" has a very sharp picture with good color saturation, even with drab-palette scenes.
Audio: Likewise, the English Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround soundtrack is quite good, with ambient noises ratcheted down a bit, especially in exterior scenes, to let the actors voices come across as natural but not faraway.
Extras: There are two bonus features: the full-length commentary by director Michael McGowan, and a brief behind-the-scenes featurette which has the feel of a pre-release promo. The latter is marginally interesting, while the commentary is low-energy and also not as rich in insights and information as one might hope. Call it average, which is a surprise, given how above-average this little film turned out to be.
Bottom Line: Like the title character, this film is small, but big in many ways. It won the Grand Prix award at the 2005 Paris Film Festival and received an Outstanding Achievement in Direction award from the Directors Guild of Canada. Whether you view it as a coming-of-age story, as a fable for people who believe in miracles despite all the odds, or as an athlete striving to win the big prize story, "Saint Ralph" delivers more, in its own quiet way.