Saint Ralph

2.5 stars out of five
by S. James Wegg
Publish Date: January 14, 2005
Reviewed at the 2005 Palm Springs International Film Festival
The Miracle Jerker

The first twenty minutes of Saint Ralph seem more like a primer on the up-close-and-personal art of adolescent self abuse than subtle narrative exposition. Ralph Walker (Adam Butcher) confesses to 22 “sins of the flesh” (er, his), revels in the gripping metaphor and real stimulation of climbing the ropes in physical education class, and—finally—is rewarded from a dive-tower belly flop with the perfect position to spy on the girls as they shower. That view raises more than his interest, which, in turn, is abetted by water-jet stimulation whose gushing finale makes mere pissing in the pool seem tame. The whole sequence comes across unevenly—think Porky’s meets Portnoy’s Complaint—lacking the unabashed grossness of the former and no where near the heady subtlety of the latter.

And so begins a film that should be an uplifting morality piece about overcoming adversity through dedication and hard work, but ends up as an unintended essay on the joy of second place Canadian, eh?

The cast is generally first-rate and Andrew Lockington’s music, with its zesty ritornello linking the scenes, redeems much of the film, but no one can overcome the biggest impediment to success: the script.

Writer/director Michael McGowan could have used the benefit of a co-creator to check the balance (raging hormones, Mother’s coma, St. Magnus school life), monitor the exposition (more show, less tell) and let his characters emerge rather than leap from change to change.

As Father Fitzpatrick, Gordon Pinsent is the class of the proceedings. Still, his range of expression—glances that speak volumes—should have been given freer reign. He plays the tough scenes convincingly “forget about miracles … he needs to learn his place in the world,” but is as powerless as he is grumpy to provide any serious threat to Walker’s attempt of winning the 1954 Boston Marathon and, accordingly, triggering the miracle that will bring his mother back to consciousness.

Fitzpatrick’s underling, Father Hibbert (Campbell Scott, convincing as pastorale advisor and coach; a tad light rebelling against Fitzpatrick’s tough love), rather like Clément Mathieu in The Chorus (cross-reference below), uses philosophy (a Nietzsche tome at the “line-in-the-sand” starting line is a nice touch), failed Olympic experience (“two weeks before Berlin my knee went out”) and vicarious desire to succeed through Walker to train, cajole and absolve him all the way to victory: real or imagined.

Throughout it all Butcher displays a remarkable range of screen skills whether in ladies man mode with Fitzpatrick’s spinster secretary or lustily on the trail of the candystripper and our lady of perpetual tease Claire (Tamara Hope). Having this pleasantly engaging first feature under his belt, let’s hope a stronger vehicle comes Butcher’s way soon; one that will reveal the degree of depth that lurks intriguingly beneath this young actor’s surface. JWR

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