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See Ralph Run with Guiltless Good Feelings

By W. Victoria Lee

Saint Ralph

Written and directed by Michael McGowan

Starring Adam Butcher, Campbell Scott, Shauna MacDonald, Tamara Hope, Gordon Pinsent, and Je Tilly

Rated PG-13

It can be incredibly easy, or incredibly hard to judge a movie like “Saint Ralph.” You can take the cynical route and call it inundated with treacle and saccharine sentiments. On the other hand, you can give into your sweet tooth and call it heartwarming and moving. To fairly evaluate a movie with a plot as predictable as that of “Saint Ralph,” you must take the higher road and abstain from succumbing to either blind exaltation or vituperative criticism.

“Saint Ralph” is Canadian writer-director Michael McGowan’s second feature film; the title of his first, “My Dog Vincent,” makes it hard to imagine that he entered the movie business with a bang. But it is not a given that his second film should be so easily dismissed.

Set in the post-World War II Canadian town of Hamilton, the movie tells the story of Ralph Walker, a typical, pubescent 14-year-old desperately seeking a miracle to awaken his comatose mother. When a teacher casually mentions that a student winning the Boston Marathon would be a miracle, Ralph takes him literally, and the rest of the plot is self-explanatory.

This movie has all the ingredients of a mawkish flop: an obviously flawed protagonist with unforeseen potential, an impossible task, a romantic interest, an authoritative antagonist to add hurdles along the way, and an unexpected helping hand with a secret of his own. With the right condiments of background music, photographic angles, and one-line clich s, this movie could easily have become the carbon copy of countless “family” films that only manage to captivate the very young or the very old.

Fortunately, McGowan eschews the typical seasonings and cooks the mundane story with speckles of wry humor. The result is an unexpectedly good flavor that not only indulges the soft spots but also manages to tickle the funny bones. Set against a Catholic community and in a Catholic preparatory school teeming with stoic priests as educators, the film is full of religious-themed hilarities and occasional absurdities.

Although the wit helps alleviate the usual sentimentality that so often plagues movies like “Saint Ralph,” ultimately the performance of Adam Butcher as Ralph Walker saves the film from falling into the abyss of schmaltziness. The up-and-coming Canadian young actor plays the 14-year-old main character with unflinching honesty, complete with unabashed hormonal rush and quixotically youthful valor. His portrayal of Ralph’s na vet is not without occasional gawkiness. But it is this inelegance that makes Ralph a fully-believable character.

In fact, much of the film is devoted to Ralph the kid, rather than his quest to win the Boston Marathon. McGowan uses the pursuit of a “miracle” as a vehicle to unroll and deliver the 14-year-old’s character. There is something captivating about Ralph’s stubbornness, one-directionality, and in-
genuousness. At the end of the film, you can feel inspired or moved, not because the story allows you to wallow in sentiments, but because you’ve never met a character like Ralph on screen, so brazenly simple that he is endearing.

Some of the supporting cast members also provide considerable presence on screen: notably Jennifer Tilly as the Nurse who tends to Ralph’s comatose mother, Campbell Scott as Father Hibert who trains Ralph, and Tamara Hope, who is determined to be a nun, as Ralph’s love interest.

In Tilly’s unorthodox character, Ralph finds an unlikely ally. Hope brings another female figure to counterbalance the largely male cast, and in her well-intended but entirely inaccurate ways to help Ralph pray, much hilarity ensues. Scott’s role is naturally both fatherly and Fatherly, but his portrayal is relatively constrained by the sentimentality that often accompanies the mentor character.

Nonetheless, a movie with a premise like that of Saint Ralph can try with little hope to completely sever ties with the “cute little film” genre. When God appears as Santa Claus, and marathon training can be completed in a few months, we are not talking about Academy Award material. But McGowan’s handling of “Saint Ralph” should not go unapplauded.

He renders serious scenes with lightheartedness that leaves them funny on the surface, but quietly powerful underneath. In a scene in a hospital, Ralph makes his mother smell flowers and dog droppings, believing that familiar smells can waken coma patients. When Hope’s character enters, the situation turns comical, but in the process Ralph’s emotional state is delicately conveyed without an exaggerated outward display of pain.

More impressive is the lack of a dramatic denouement. Although the ending falls within the usual expectations, the concluding scenes have a surprising subtlety, leaving none of the sweet aftertaste. The Canadian Screenwriting Award and Paris Film Festival Award the movie earned are well-deserved.

Ultimately a good-feeling movie with offbeat humor, and commendable writing and acting, “Saint Ralph” proves to be above the typical sentimental movie. In an age in which the general audience has a strange penchant for vacuous comedies or depressing realisms, there is no harm in spoiling the mood with guiltless good feelings.