There comes a point in every boy’s life when he discovers the little miracle between his legs and how much pleasure is derived from stroking it on a regular basis. For Ralph Walker (Adam Butcher), a smark-alecky teenager living in 1950s Canada, that means letting the vibrating handle of his lawnmower, a rope in gym class, and a pool’s water pump tend to his crotch region. But when the boy’s mother (Shauna MacDonald, evoking the Virgin Mary, if not in spirit then by the head wraps that decorate her bald head) falls into a cancer-induced coma at a local hospital, his natural obsession with masturbation is replaced with a cloying desire to perform a miracle by winning the Boston Marathon, hoping to bring his mother back from the brink of death as a result. Sadly, it’s with this shift in priorities that Saint Ralph goes from insightful to maudlin.
That Ralph considers the idea of winning the marathon a miracle doesn’t go over well with Father Fitzpatrick (Gordon Pinsent), whose unremitting desire to squash the boy’s spirit doesn’t really suggest any genuine sense of Catholic insult on the man’s part as much as it fulfills the story’s need for a big bad wolf. Every character is a familiar type, from Jennifer Tilly’s friendly nurse to Campbell Scott’s hip, Nietzsche-loving priest, whose belief in Ralph’s ability to win the Boston Marathon unearths a secret he’s suppressed from his students. Even when the film soars on its amusing and credible depiction of bourgeoning teenage sexuality, it’s undone by its flimsy aesthetic: You wouldn’t even know Saint Ralph was set in the ‘50s if it wasn’t for the feast-day title cards that catalog and contextualize the story’s events throughout. Hell, I’ve seen better period detail on Oliver Beene.
Some critics are bound to praise Michael McGowan’s film for pressing all the right buttons, but such arrogance assumes we’re all the same Pavlovian dog: For fans of Leonard Cohen, the outcome of the Boston Marathon sequence will become immediately clear as soon as the lyrics of Tragically Hip singer Gordon Downie’s cover of “Hallelujah” are heard on the soundtrack. Though it’s the underdog-racing subplot that will earn plaudits, it’s McGowan’s observation of a group of young teenagers’ commitment to feeding their waking sexual identities and how this nature conflicts with the nurture of their Catholic faith that’s really unique. But like the scenes of Ralph left alone fending for himself in his home, these visions are fleeting and undernourished. Which is to say, there’s a half a good film here. In the end, Saint Ralph is content paying lip service to religion (the Catholic thing is a whole lot of window dressing), choosing instead to pander to fans of anyone who got off during Children of Heaven and Millions.