Saint Ralph

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Here is another feel-good movie that’s awkwardly written and staged, all knees and elbows, figuratively speaking, but you feel guilty criticizing it because it’s about a kid running a marathon to save his mom from dying of cancer. CANCER, for crying out loud! What am I supposed to do with that?

It’s an indie film, too, made on a shoestring by Michael McGowan, who managed to get a couple of famous people (Campbell Scott and Jennifer Tilly) to be in it. It’s a movie that wants to be better than it actually is, but at least it wants to be something. A lot of movies don’t care what they are, as long as they make money.

It is 1953 and we are at St. Magnus Catholic High School in Hamilton, Ontario. Ralph Walker (Adam Butcher), 14, is a lanky adolescent whose weekly confessionals include many counts of impure thoughts and other venal sins. He’s a clever kid, able to find solutions to most of the problems he finds himself in, probably smarter than many of his classmates but prone to goofing off instead of working.

His father died in the war, and his mother is in the hospital with cancer. Early in the film, she falls into a coma. Her primary nurse, Alice (Jennifer Tilly), tells Ralph, “It would take a miracle to wake her up.”

Meanwhile, it is only through basic sympathy that the head of St. Magnus, the crusty Father Fitzpatrick (Gordon Pinsent), has not expelled the soon-to-be-orphaned Ralph. Nonetheless, he has no patience for the lad’s shenanigans and orders him to practice with the cross-country team to burn off some of his excess energy. The coach, moody and doubting Father Hibbert (Campbell Scott), makes a joking reference to preparing for the Boston Marathon. Ralph asks if they’re really going to go, and if there’s a chance one of them could win. Father Hibbert says, “Winning the Boston Marathon would be a miracle.”

And there’s your film: Ralph figures if he can win the Boston Marathon, it will be just the miracle prescribed by Nurse Alice to wake up his mom.

I think Ralph has fundamentally misunderstood what Alice said. “It would take a miracle to wake her up” just means, “If she woke up, it would be miracle.” But Ralph takes it to mean, “If a miracle occurred, whatever its nature, that would be the catalyst needed to wake up your mother.” Hence, if he can produce a miracle, it will do the trick. Semantics, maybe, but I know I wouldn’t spend six months training for a marathon unless I was absolutely certain I had not misinterpreted my instructions, you know?

Father Hibbert thinks Ralph is nuts but agrees to train him for the marathon anyway; Father Fitzpatrick, villainous simply because the movie thinks it should have a villain, doesn’t want either of them engaged in this foolishness. I bet I know someone due for a comeuppance….

The movie has now painted itself into a corner from which only the most expert filmmaking can rescue it. If Ralph wins the marathon, or even comes close — I should think placing second or third would be a miracle, too — and if his mother does indeed wake up, then it’s a slap in the face to all the people who have prayed and had faith and whose loved ones have died anyway. If you suggest such a simple cause-and-effect with God’s mercy — I do Thing A and God gives me Thing B — you’re oversimplifying the way life works. But on the other hand, if his mom doesn’t wake up, then the movie is depressing and perhaps even pointless.

McGowan is not the genius necessary to make this scenario play out cleanly, though I give him credit for making a valiant attempt. The climax makes the best use of Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah” — a much-overused song in recent years — that I’ve ever heard in a film, matching the scene as if it had been written for it.

But much of the film feels hesitant, as if it’s unsure how to proceed. Scenes play out perfunctorily, many of them without any particular power or energy to them. The story gets told, and with able performances by the leads; I just wonder how long I’ll remember it.

B- (1 hr., 38 min.; PG-13, some locker-room nudity, some sexuality, scattered profanity.)