Judge Brendan Babish once ran a marathon. He finished in 14,579th place.
He's hoping for a miracle. He doesn't have a chance.
Michael McGowan (My Dog Vincent) wrote and directed this fictional account of a 14-year-old boy from Hamilton, Ontario who believes that winning the 1954 Boston Marathon will be the miracle that saves his mother's life.
Facts of the Case
Ralph Walker's (Adam Butcher) father died fighting for Canada in World War II. Now his mother (Shauna MacDonald) is ill. He dutifully visits her in the hospital, but doesn't seem to realize how serious her condition is until she falls into a coma. Ralph tries to rouse her out of her deep sleep, but the doctors tell him it would take a miracle to wake her. Thankfully, Ralph is Catholic and believes in miracles. When his cross-country coach tells him that winning the Boston Marathon would be a miracle akin to loaves and fishes, Ralph realizes that winning the marathon might just be the miracle that wakes his mother.
Saint Ralph starts promisingly enough. Within the film's first five minutes Ralph, our hero, is shown auto-eroticizing himself with a lawn mower. In a movie that is self-described as "a heart-warming story about chasing miracles!" it is quite a relief to come across a bit of the ribald. A few scenes later Ralph is caught abusing himself in the public pool (which necessitates the pool's closure and draining). Thinking that the boy has too much nervous energy, Father Fitzpatrick (Gordon Pinsent), the headmaster of Ralph's Catholic school, forces him to join the cross-country team.
The cross-country team is coached by the progressive Father George Hibbert (Campbell Scott, Roger Dodger). Scott is one of the most underrated actors of his generation, but there really is nothing for him to do with this role. Father Hibbert is introduced reading Nietzsche to his class (which is amusing because Nietzsche once famously opined "God is dead"). However, after that intriguing introduction, Hibbert proves to be a conventional priest whose only distinguishing characteristic is his previous cross-country experience. Halfway through the movie, Ralph discovers that as a young man Father Hibbert was the best marathon runner in Canada. When Ralph asks his coach about competing in the 1936 Olympics Hibbert turns icy and makes Ralph promise never to mention it again. Hibbert's guardedness makes him a slightly more enigmatic character, but the movie ultimately suffers by never satisfactorily explaining why he would be so secretive about a great accomplishment. This is only one example of many where the character's actions only serve to artificially enhance the drama, or add unearned depth to the characters.
The most flagrant offender is Father Fitzpatrick. I suppose McGowan felt that Ralph needed an antagonist, and who better to act as a foil than the crusty Catholic headmaster? When Fitzpatrick learns that Ralph is planning to run (and win) the Boston Marathon, he throws an inexplicable conniption. He forbids Ralph from training, and threatens Father Hibbert with expulsion if Ralph runs the marathon. While it is strange for anyone to be so diametrically opposed to physical fitness, Father Fitzpatrick's actions are especially baffling because it was his idea for Ralph to join the cross-country team in the first place.
More disturbing than Father Fitzpatrick's actions is the movie's unfortunate change of tone. The first third of Saint Ralph is funny and irreverent, but once Ralph's mother falls into a coma there are no laughs for the final hour of the film. Worse, the humor is replaced by quasi-inspirational footage of Ralph's midnight runs through fields of snow and heart-to-hearts with Father Hibbert. In addition, Saint Ralph does a disservice to marathon running by cuing up the string section whenever Ralph steps outside for a run. More than most any other athletic event, marathon running is lonely, tedious, and repetitive. Saint Ralph captures none of that. While it is a challenge to convey the tedium of the sport without boring the audience, as a marathon runner one would think McGowan (winner of the 1985 Detroit Marathon) could have done better than the wide-angle shots of Ralph happily flailing around his school's environs to a mediocre cover of Leonard Cohen's "Hallelujah."
This all could have been redeemed with a great ending. Throughout the movie I couldn't imagine how McGowan could conclude his story. If Ralph were to run the marathon and finish in 1,825th place it would be realistic, but anti-climactic. But if Ralph were to win the marathon, or even finish in the top five, that would be an athletic accomplishment greater than 12-year-old Henry Rowengartner and his bionic arm leading the Cubs to the World Series in Rookie of the Year. While Saint Ralph has a lot of whimsy, it never posits itself as the kind of fantastic movie that can accommodate such a suspension of disbelief. While I sympathize with McGowan's intractable position, I cannot excuse Saint Ralph's lame ending which lacks any sense of humor or imagination.
Saint Ralph is far from a bad film, but suffers from comparison with two similar, superior, films. Saved! and Millions both feature young characters whose decisions, like Ralph's, are affected by their deep faith in the Lord. In a way, Saved! is the opposite of Saint Ralph: whereas Ralph's faith spurs him on to run the marathon, Saved!'s female protagonist attempts to cure her boyfriend of homosexuality and ends up with an unwanted pregnancy. While Saint Ralph is earnest to a fault, Saved! is unapologetically cynical, and far more entertaining.
In Millions a Scottish boy finds a bag of money that he believes was sent to him from God. He begins to give out handfuls of cash to those in his town he thinks are needy. Unlike Saint Ralph, Millions does not indulge the boy, or its audience, in the fantasy that miracles are readily available to anyone who has faith. However, Millions still manages to be sweet and heartwarming without resorting to empty sentimentalism.
The Saint Ralph DVD offers a reasonably good picture, clear sound, and a few perfunctory extras. Michael McGowan provides a genial commentary track that he uses to applaud the performances of his actors and the diligence of crew members. There is also a short featurette where cast and crew expound on how great it was to work on Saint Ralph. One does not gleam so much new information from these extras, except that everyone who worked on Saint Ralph really enjoyed the experience.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
Saint Ralph is an inspirational movie that has more in common with a Hallmark Hall of Fame production than the normal uncompromising independent film. While many viewers will be turned off by Saint Ralph's mawkishness, there is still a large audience that appreciates unironic sentiment. It's just unfortunate that Saint Ralph started with promising humor only to degenerated into schmaltz. Thankfully, Saint Ralph is nowhere near as cloying as Patch Adams or The Story of Us. If you found yourself moved by those films, you will probably find a big soft spot in your heart for Saint Ralph.
Saint Ralph may flirt with humor and originality, but ultimately settles for melodrama and convention.
You seem like a good kid Ralph, and while some of your antics amuse the court, I have no choice but to find you guilty.
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