My Prayer; Your Answer
Tongue squarely in cheek, invoking assorted saints of temptation, impossible causes, possessed people, gravediggers, fire prevention, loneliness and innocence, and sporting a pedestrian God as Santa Claus (Rob Smith), Saint Ralph is the most recent film out of Toronto. It's a strictly Canadian affair that's rated PG-13 for a harmless backview of a nude female (Lubica Kucerova), some lame adolescent longings, and a few “damn’s.” But writer-director (and former champion marathoner) Michael McGowan’s second feature is, like overpraised Seabiscuit, the sort of treacly formulaic family fare that attracts parents with unjaded children.
Predictable in humor and plot -- one can tamper only so far with, but not blatantly alter, the facts of an actual 1954 event -- the film captures the feel of the relatively uncomplicated era (even to dyeing bowling shoes to resemble period running sneakers) and draws an audience into another impossible dream. And, reminiscent of the prelapsarian innocence of Bing Crosby-Barry Fitzgerald teamings, the Saint Magnus School fathers may be open-minded or wrong-headed but are nothing but staunch, dedicated and kindly. Along with Santa, only a few seconds of metaphorical “runner’s high” flying feet -- a 4:25.2 mile, “You were flying, young man” -- intrude as special effects to go just a tad beyond the ordinary in this comic tale of a fourteen-year-old’s quest.
Hardly a saint, Ralph Walker (newcomer Adam Butcher) lives with sickly young mother Emma (Shauna MacDonald) and memorabilia of war-hero father. He exasperates headmaster Father Fitzpatrick (Gordon Pinsent) with his smoking “almost [but not quite] off” school grounds, takes “the Lord’s name in vain two-hundred-twenty-two times,” admits to impure thoughts, is kidded by older students and chums around with earnest Chester Jones (Michael Kanez) while keeping his eye on blonde blue-eyed Claire Collins (Tamara Hope), a do-gooder who reads the lives of Canadian martyrs and aims to be a nun.
If Fitzpatrick has always played by the book, as a former student complains, and is particularly stern with Ralph after hospitalized Emma falls into a prolonged coma, it is Nietzsche-espousing Fr. George Hibbert (Campbell Scott) who, once a dreamer and distance runner himself, recognizes the spiritual beneath the boy’s habitual cockiness.
Hometown Hamilton is green and as yet not blighted by its steel mills, a northern neighbor Norman Rockwell setting for miracles where, fed by his mother -- “Did you conquer the world today, Mr. Walker?” -- Ralph’s “I’m destined for greatness” attitude is at first off-putting. But when hoarse-voiced Nurse Alice (Jennifer Tilly) whispers that only a miracle will restore the comatose woman and the boy runs after a wonder to work, the other characters (and the audience) begin to rally round him.
The miracle? Well, how about training with the cross-country team, winning a local race and then the fifty-third running of the Boston Marathon? Ralph understands that, with Faith, Prayer and Purity, “technically, anyone can perform a miracle” ŕ la Saint Francis’ stigmata. Although he himself is ill-prepared, and has problems with the last of the three requisites, he enlists Fr. Hibbert as trainer and begins pushing his body to its limits and beyond. His self-confidence breaking only at a failed Christmas Eve hospital visit, the boy honestly believes he can do it, despite Fr. Fitzpatrick’s efforts to stop him (and Hibbert) and thus forestall hubris and disappointment.
But once in a lifetime “you must close your eyes and let go,” as the youngster’s effort will in the end draw the cheers even of those doubters leery of miracles. Wisely, the film does no more than mention a try for the Melbourne Olympic Games: once is enough for any single film.
(Released by Samuel Goldwyn Films and rated "PG-13" for some sexual content and partial nudity.)