The average ninth grader might regard authority figures with respect and a morsel of fear. He might do what is requested from him and no more. Polite and obedient, he drifts along, neither exciting nor upsetting, never going beyond what is asked of him; thus, he never does what he is told he cannot do. Ralph Walker (Adam Butcher) is not the average ninth grader, and as writer-director Michael McGowan’s film “Saint Ralph” (2004) argues, there are times when doing more than the minimum and defying those authority figures is marvelous and necessary.
Set in Hamilton, Ontario, “Saint Ralph” finds its protagonist in a fourteen year-old student at St. Magnus’s. Bullied because his dad is dead and his mother sick, Ralph Walker seems complacent with his daily life. It isn’t until his mother slips into a coma that he realizes that he has to do something. Reality bops him on the head and the check isn’t pretty. An assignment to the cross-country team and talk of miracles convinces Ralph that his winning the 1954 Boston Marathon would pull his mother out of her slumber. The story develops via nine segments over the months between September 1953 and May 1954, and each part is designated to a particular saint. For instance, Michael the Archangel is the Saint of Temptation; Jude Thaddeus is the Saint of Impossible Causes; Bruno is the Saint of the Possessed; Rita of Casia is the Saint Against Loneliness; Anthony the Abbot is the Saint of Gravediggers; Thomas Aquinas is Saint of the Apologists; Christina the Astonishing is Saint of Lunatics; Catherine of Siena is the Saint of Fire Prevention; and Hallward is the Saint of Innocence. Literally and metaphorically, they correspond to the narrative content. As the plot unravels and you observe Ralph’s interactions with the various characters, you truly grow to dislike Father Fitzpatrick (Gordon Pinsent), the schoolmaster.
Our protagonist’s father died in World War II and his mother is in a coma. He’ll be an orphan if she doesn’t wake up. Ralph believes winning the Boston Marathon will be the miracle that will snap his mother out of her deep sleep. Why does Father Fitzpatrick insist on squashing this dream? Because he doesn’t want Ralph to embarrass or disappoint himself since a victory would take a miracle and only saints can perform one and Ralph is clearly just a boy who needs to learn some discipline? Ralph takes the Lord’s name in vain, lies (for good reason), masturbates, and has a mind of his own. We certainly forgive his “indiscretions,” why is Fitzpatrick less generous? His disapproval, his scowling demeanor, his idea of helping Ralph is not without a purpose, though. Father Fitzpatrick is not only the head of the Catholic School, but also a high-ranking priest in the Basilian order. In Ralph’s eyes, he is “the Man.” Ralph doesn’t forget his manners when talking to him, but he refuses to listen to him. Because of this tempered recalcitrance, Ralph is able to stay focused, to do what Fitzpatrick forbids. The Father may or may not know it, but his antagonistic voice fuels Ralph’s determination to try the impossible.
The dynamic between Ralph and Father Hibbert (Scott Campbell) is also quite fascinating. Student gives teacher something to believe in, teacher gives student encouragement. A former runner himself, Father Hibbert does more than coach Ralph. His willingness to support the fourteen year-old’s (unrealistic) mission provides a positive influence. Ralph is actually able to abstain from some of his vices. It’s wonderfully ironic how the idea of the marathon entered Ralph’s head. The phrase “it would take a miracle” was planted by the nurse (a delightful Jennifer Tilly); “that would be a miracle” from Father Hibbert. Ralph doesn’t understand that the nurse’s words were literal but Father Hibbert’s were figurative. Father Fitzpatrick thinks it verges on blasphemy. It may take faith, purity, and prayer to harness the necessary mentality, but only saints can perform miracles. Fitzpatrick put Ralph on cross-country duty as a punishment for the pool incident, and it allows Ralph to experience running, to get his body warmed to the activity. It’s serendipitous. It’s God’s will. The Big Guy even appears in the film in the form of a middle-aged Santa Claus. Without the cross-country, Ralph wouldn’t’ have heard about the Boston Marathon and that his or his classmates’ winning it would be a statistical miracle. Therefore, the class session that mentioned miracles wouldn’t have impacted Ralph in the same way, and “Saint Ralph” would be a different movie.
McGowan’s film isn’t just about following this boy’s private quest to accomplish the impossible. It is also about how he affects the other characters in the film. Father Fitzpatrick grows some empathy; Ralph’s best friend Chester (Michael Kanev) finds courage; Claire (Tamara Hope) the love interest may have to rethink joining the convent; and Father Hibbert has a reason to believe. If anyone has ever said that you can’t do something, let “Saint Ralph” motivate you and you won’t hear them say “I told you so.”