Saint Ralph (2004) Review

Saint Ralph is a movie that doesn’t know exactly what it wants to be. It’s caught in a Bermuda Triangle of family-feel-good, teenage-sex-comedy, and religious-case-study. Even with a decent cast, the movie stretches thin quickly and the writing and acting just aren’t strong enough to hold it together. Still, it isn’t a complete loss.

Set in the 1950’s, Adam Butcher plays Ralph Walker, a freshman at a Catholic high school who has a hard time fitting in and is constantly picked on by the student body for “self-abuse.” His father is dead and his mother is bed ridden, dying from cancer. When his mother falls into a coma, Ralph decides that he can wake her by performing a miracle. Clearly, Ralph is deluded and the plot is shaky, but there are worse premises to base a movie on.

Realizing the questionable storyline, first time writer/director Michael McGowan wastes no time forcing his way through the initial plot point. Nurse Alice (Jennifer Tilly) tells Ralph that “the doctors say, it’ll take a miracle to wake her up,” and the very next scene Ralph is coincidentally learning about miracles in Religious Studies class. The scene after that, Father Hibbert (Campbell Scott), who is Ralph’s cross-country coach, tells Ralph that it would be a miracle if he won the Boston Marathon. Each time Ralph hears the word “miracle” he echoes it unintentionally comically. “A miracle?” Ham fisted, but we get the point.

The family-feel-good is definitely there, but the movie peppers awkward teenage-sex-comedy throughout that’ll make parents cringe. At one point, Ralph watches a woman shower from his vantage point in a swimming pool. Unfortunately, Ralph is pressed against a jet stream of water that shoots up his trunks and Ralph affects exaggerated faces of ecstasy while a couple of old men and the audience watch in disgust uncomfortably too long.

Though written weakly, Ralph is nevertheless a strong character. He lives alone, pretending to being taken care of by his grandparents who are, in fact, dead. To prevent foreclosure on his home, he sells appliances and trinkets to pay the bank. Moreover, in the face of complete adversity–mockery, admonishments, and adult competitors–Ralph stays the course to complete his mission.

To help him on his way, Father Hibbert, an ex-runner in denial, trains Ralph against the wishes of Father “Fitz” Fitzpatrick (Gordon Pinsent). Claire (Tamara Hope), is Ralph’s sweetheart, who helps him learn to pray and perform other *ahem* cathartic activities. Nurse Alice gives Ralph access to his mother after visiting hours and helps him strength train. Ralph’s friend, Chester (Michael Kanev), forges the notes from Ralph’s dead grandparents with his expert penmanship. Ralph has a decent support group played by excellent actors.

In contrast, Adam Butcher is simply not strong enough to carry the entire movie. Don’t expect to see the caliber of Haley Joel Osment or Dakota Fanning here. One scene shows Ralph trying to desperately wake his mother by shaking and prodding her and yelling at her to wake up. No doubt you will be reminded of high schoolers performing Romeo and Juliet–forced and unbelievable. In other scenes, however, where Adam is simply playing a regular fourteen year-old boy, he shines. When Claire invites him to mass, Ralph spins with heady delight that comes across as nothing but genuine.

The more experienced actors are sadly undermined by the writing. Nurse Alice is supposedly a lesbian, but that doesn’t come across in the film. Claire inexplicably wants to become a nun, even though she likes thrusting Ralph’s face into her bosom. Father Fitzpatrick is a flat antagonist that devotes all of his energy to stopping Ralph from achieving his miracle. Very little writing is devoted to showing that “Fitz” does what he does out of good intentions for Ralph’s well being. When he finds out that Ralph is living on his own, Fitz’s overtures to move Ralph into an orphanage comes across more vindictive than compassionate. In the end, Fitz is predictably won over by Ralph’s determination.

This is not a bad movie, by any means. It’s just simple, flat, and formulaic, but that’s to be expected from the genre of coming-of-age films. If you can see beyond the stilted dialogue and the exaggerated delivery, you may come to enjoy the languid pacing and the After School Special sentiments. Otherwise, steer clear or you’ll leave the theater feeling like you’ve run a marathon yourself.