The film takes place at a Catholic middle school in the early '50s. Ralph Walker (Adam Butcher) is a 14-year-old boy who, according to the school's priestly principal, is too enamored with "Old Testament depravity" to be a good Catholic. And while it's true that Ralph's greatest wish is to see a naked woman, he also has a more New Testament side: He spends his evenings comforting his mother, who is too ill to rise from bed.
Ralph's hospital-bound mom is the one joy in his otherwise austerely Catholic life, and the one person he can confide in about the terrors of his school days. And then, one day, Ralph's world comes crashing down when he accidentally masturbates in a public swimming pool. With his new nickname of "wanker," Ralph's life becomes even more unpleasant. He goes to see his mum and tells her, "I was caught committing a venal sin in the pool." Unfortunately, mom chooses just that moment to slip into a coma, leading Ralph to try for a life of purity and prayer in the hopes of bringing about her miraculous recovery.
This might sound a bit maudlin and tear-jerker-esque, and it sometimes is, but somehow, this movie works. Adam Butcher gives a truly weird performance. It's kind of like watching Dick Cavett shrunk down and stuffed into a Catholic school uniform. He's joined by Campbell Scott, one of the world's best film actors, who plays Father Hibbert, a Nietzsche-loving priest and former marathon runner.
Hibbert and Ralph's mutual nemesis is Father Fitzpatrick, who's the only really shallow character in the movie. He's basically Dean Wormer in a collar, and all he wants to do is crush poor Ralphie's will to live. To this end, he puts him on the religious equivalent of double-secret probation: He forbids Ralph from entering foot races.
See, Ralph understands that it would be a miracle if he won the Boston Marathon, and that the only thing that can save his mother is a miracle, so, by a simple deduction of mystical logic, he decides that if he wins the Boston Marathon, his mother will wake up. Q.E.D.
Father Hibbert, who was once a promising competitive marathon runner, at first discourages Ralph, but then sees in the young boy the same spirit and drive that he himself once blah blah blah etc. OK, the story is a little obvious; still, Saint Ralph has something that few films have: It's never boring.
Virtually every shot of the film is carefully framed for the sole purpose of telling the story. Every actor gives his or her all at each moment. And while the script occasionally veers into Capra-corn, it spends most of its time teetering between weirdly inventive and effectively human.
The great dialogue keeps things moving, even through the more standard sequences, and it's particularly well-delivered. Tamara Hope, who plays Ralph's love interest, really captures something about Catholic girlhood. She wants to be a nun, so she decides to help Ralph in his quest for holiness because she figures a good deed of that magnitude might allow her to "skip purgatory altogether." Hope's performance brings together an overwhelming devotion to God with the kind of hot sexuality that only incredibly pale teenagers who venerate the Holy Mother can evince.
Still, in spite of the tremendous support from Hope and Scott, this is really young Adam Butcher's movie. It's hard to imagine that he won't do great things, so long as nobody decides to cast him in a superhero movie or as a hobbit. If he sticks with the kind of small film that showcases his talent, he'll no doubt shine.
And this is a small film. While it aims at the same territory as Chariots of Fire or Breaking Away, it never gets too big for its britches. Centering neatly on not just a moment in time, but a particular mode of being that has quaintness written all over it, Saint Ralph neatly captures what it is to have just started to live while nonetheless wishing for eternal life. Maybe it's the kind of film that only sensitive post-Catholics will adore, but I think just about anyone who can appreciate a film whose depth owes nothing to irony or cynicism will get a kick out of it.