Blink and you'll probably miss this one at the theaters. But Saint Ralph, a 1950's-era drama about a spiritually inspired 14-year-old boy, capably rises above its snooze potential. It's a little piece of acting brilliance.
The story is small with one-on-one conversations, though it's hardly a bore. Set in a peculiar 1950's New England, Saint Ralph follows awkward ninth-grader Ralph Walker (Adam Butcher), who sets out to win the Boston Marathon. He believes his victory will cure his ailing mother, suffering in a hospital. Ralph's Catholic school elders try to silence his marathon efforts, especially when Ralph starts mentioning miracles in the newspaper. But one of his teachers, Father Hibbert (Campbell Scott), defies superiors to coach scrawny Ralph, who trains tirelessly. Ralph's effortless, boyish resolve and positive thinking--the believability a tribute to Butcher's acting ability--endear him to others.
Saint Ralph is a hand-crafted actor's movie. Newcomer Butcher's honest, conflicted portrayal of Ralph makes us believe teen actors have more range than Hilary Duff. The actor's face and mannerisms belie a young adolescent's gentle nuances. And the camera gives Butcher plenty of face time to emote, so he doesn't have to mug, like, say, the Rebound kids. Saint Ralph exists in a kids' universe, where kids talk like adults. Ralph's friend, Chester (played by Michael Kanev), wields the anxiety of a cherubic 20-something. For the grown-ups, Scott (Roger Dodger) keeps Saint steady, playing Ralph's Catholic teacher confidant. The veteran indie actor lends a quiet and powerful presence, unlike the talkativeness of his previous work. Oscar-nominated Jennifer Tilly, as a school nurse, is disappointingly under utilized. When she's onscreen, Tilly is throaty and charismatic--and you definitely want to see more of her.
Writer/director Michael McGowan is relatively untested, with only one previous independent feature to his name--1997's My Dog Vincent. But he's got the chops. With Saint Ralph, McGowan, a former Detroit Marathon runner and journalist, captures a mini-sized humanity affectionately. Pacing is tightly crafted around an efficient story. The priests' Catholic repression is clearly a commentary on religious intolerance, a nicely played subplot that seems plausible. McGowan only stumbles in trying to convey the overall tone of the movie. Despite its strengths, Saint Ralph feels at times like a 1980's TV movie, complete with synthesizer music. The story moves along because of its natural drama, not the visual storytelling, which lapses occasionally.
Supported by superlative performances, Saint Ralph is an engaging small story about one boy's journey to think big. It might leave you glancing at your watch once in awhile, but you'll still want to stay to the end.