Saint Ralph (Canada, 2005, Michael McGowan) AKA Malcolm goes to Porky's
Set in a Catholic school in 1954 Hamilton, Ontario, Saint Ralph is based on the true story of a 14 year old boy who set out to win the Boston Marathon in order to conjure up the miracle he believed was necessary to rouse his mother out of her disease-driven coma. The film is not entirely satisfying, falling back a bit too easily on stereotypes and cinematic conventions, yet it also packs an unexpected emotional punch come film’s end.
Everything about Saint Ralph (both film and character) is cute. Adam Butcher, who plays the titular character, is—-as I’m sure adolescent girls everywhere will agree--a cutie. The inter-titles, which divide the film into easily consumable chapters, are adorable. The soundtrack, littered with fine Canadiana, is hard not to nod along to in appreciation. The main character’s ability to always find the silver lining, no matter how dire his straits, is totally endearing. Everything about this film screams “I’m cute as the dickens and I’m not afraid to show it.”
But sometimes cute just ain't enough. In fact, cute can quickly achieve the sorta critical mass where familiarity becomes contempt. Just think Macauley Culkin. And there is just this sorta familiar cuddliness to Saint Ralph, the way it pushes so hard to be likeable, that it pretty much defies the audience not to push back. Director Michael McGowan, clearly a fan of some of his eccentricities, borrows more than a little from Wes Anderson’s bag of tricks. Some of the most egregious examples being the above-mentioned quirky intertitle commentary, the seemingly, yet not so much, oddball musical accents (often pulled from the 80s and 90s, these often prove weirdly anachronistic, given the 1954 setting) , the bordering on farcical characters, but, ironically for a film that trucks in matters of faith, director Michael McGowan seems to lack just such faith in some of his character’s humanity, choosing instead easy caricature and comfortable stereotype. Even the comically lurid moments early in the film seem a tad lazy, reminiscent as they are of other endeavours, an uneasy cross between a racy episode of Malcolm in the Middle and a tamed-down scene from Porky’s, mayhaps. Finally, the film makes ample use of the conventions of racing and sports films, as the protagonist rises above the obstacles as a compelling dark horse/underdog to challenge for victory in the big race.
All of which is not to say that the film doesn’t have its moments. Ralph is certainly an entertaining fellow, full of the sort of energetic irreverence and pent-up sexual frustration that is the stuff of many a coming-of-age comedy. However, as played by Adam Butcher, his is the measured and calculated, self-conscious and studied charm of an acting student. Far more interesting to watch is Michael Kanev, who plays Ralph’s best friend Chester. His easy manner puts you right at ease; you are never aware of any “acting moment” when Kanev is on screen. Tamara Hope, who plays Claire, the convent-bent love interest of the terminally horny titular character, fares somewhat better than he.
And yet, somehow the film becomes oddly compelling despite its obvious familiarity and ingratiating cuteness. One reason must surely be Campbell Scott, who is, as expected, a commanding presence; furthermore, Canadian icon Gordon Pinsent does his best to imbue his black-hatted (and robed) role of the disapproving Catholic school patriarch with some fine Maritime salt. Feisty and curmudgeonly, Pinsent’s Father Fitzpatrick adds local colour throughout. Finally, there is the matter of the Big Race itself. The grande finale, Ralph’s participation in the Boston Marathon, proves a surprisingly emotionally gripping piece of film. The race’s conclusion and the consequent denouement is sure to leave all but the most hard-hearted dealing with clutches of the throat and swellings of the tear ducts.