Screens A 26.2-mile offering

'Saint Ralph' tries to save his mother with a miraculous run in the Boston Marathon

When Emma Walker falls into a deep coma, Alice (Tilly), the nurse attending her, tells the patient's son: "It'll take a miracle to wake her up." Ralph (Butcher) is such a literalist of the imagination that, desperate to save his mother, he sets about concocting a miracle. As penance for masturbating in a public swimming pool, Ralph is assigned to work out with his school's cross-country team. It is there that he resolves to attempt the miracle of winning the Boston Marathon. An amiable fantasy about the godliness of the long-distance runner, Saint Ralph begins in September 1953, and follows its young protagonist as, defying the odds and the head of his Catholic school, he prepares for the famous endurance race the following April.

Adam Butcher wins the support of school bullies, flirts, and priests alike as Ralph, a 14-year-old boy struggling with his mother's illness and puberty in Saint Ralph.

At 14, Ralph is a bundle of riotous energies that express themselves repeatedly in what the priests who confess him term "self-abuse." His mother in the hospital and his father dead, Ralph pretends to be staying with his grandparents, when in fact he lives alone and gets his best friend Chester to forge signatures required by authorities. It is only two years after publication of The Catcher in the Rye, and Ralph, who lives in Hamilton, Ontario, is a kind of Canadian Holden Caulfield; a streak of holy simplicity nudges each into trouble with adults.

Though visited by visions of God dressed in a Santa suit, Ralph is no saint, even when he adopts a book of martyrs as model for his behavior. He has continuing problems with faith, purity, and prayer, the requisites for miracles - especially purity. Ralph repeatedly antagonizes Father Fitzpatrick (Pinsent), the autocrat of St. Magnus School, who opposes the boy's preposterous plan to run the marathon and threatens to expel him. But he is befriended by Father Hibbert (Scott), a free-thinking teacher of religion who dares to compare Nietzsche to Jesus. A former track star himself, Hibbert coaches Ralph for Boston, while Ralph's gumption inspires Hibbert to stand up to Fitzpatrick.

Saint Ralph
Dir. & writ. Michael McGowan; feat. Adam Butcher, Campbell Scott, Gordon Pinsent, Jennifer Tilly (PG-13)
The screenplay, by Canadian director Michael McGowan, is implausible and treacly. A viewer needs to take an Olympic leap of faith in order to believe that a ninth-grader with no prior training can prepare himself adequately within 180 days for the formidable Boston Marathon. Yet who but a stern headmaster would withhold sympathy for a boy on the verge of orphanhood and in the throes of puberty? Saint Ralph follows the familiar Rocky rhythm of sports movies that culminate in unleashing the underdog at the championship event. And its single-minded characters lack sufficient self-awareness to be embarrassed by anything, including the absurdities of the script. Even its ironies are innocent: "Flying to the moon is possible," Hibbert advises Ralph, a decade before Apollo 11, "but it's never going to happen." However, for all his venal sins, the likable lad becomes the pride of Hamilton. Even the schoolyard bully, as well as Claire, a coy young beauty who aims, she claims, to be a nun, end up rooting for Ralph,
and so did I.


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