Even though it sprints along a well-trod path through familiar territory, "Saint Ralph" remains compelling as it follows the misadventures of a young long-distance runner in Hamilton, Ontario during the1950s. Writer-director Michael McGowan's comedy-drama could be a leggy B.O. performer before hitting its stride in homevid and cable.

Even though it sprints along a well-trod path through familiar territory, “Saint Ralph” remains surprisingly compelling as it follows the misadventures of a young long-distance runner in Hamilton, Ontario during the early 1950s. With careful handling by savvy distrib, writer-director Michael McGowan’s bittersweet comedy-drama could be a respectably leggy B.O. performer before hitting its stride in homevid and cable arenas.

McGowan employs well-apportioned measures of droll humor and emotional urgency while spinning the story of Ralph Walker (Adam Butcher), a precocious ninth grader at a Catholic high school where precocity is routinely punished.

The 14-year-old wiseacre does himself no favors by calling attention to himself: School officials could easily discover he’s living at home alone, unattended by his grandparents, while his critically ill mother (Shauna MacDonald) is hospitalized. (The grandparents, like Ralph’s war-hero father, are deceased.) Rather than maintain a low profile, however, Ralph repeatedly bends or breaks rules — and even smokes an occasional cigarette — much to the displeasure of Father Fitzpatrick (Gordon Pinsent), the school’s headmaster.

To discipline his problem pupil, Fitzpatrick orders Ralph to join the cross-country team coached by Father Hibbert (Campbell Scott), one of the school’s more enlightened teachers. But when Ralph’s mother slips into a coma, the youngster accepts his punishment as a blessing. Guided by an irrational logic born of mounting desperation and Catholic education, Ralph figures that if he becomes a world-class runner and wins the Boston Marathon, the victory would be nothing short of a miracle. And a miracle, of course, would immediately restore his mother back to health. Right?

Father Fitzpatrick views Ralph’s game plan as sacrilegious. And even the more sympathetic Father Hibbert — an ex-runner who once dreamed of Olympic glory — does his best to discourage the wannabe marathoner. As Ralph begins to win local and regional competitions, however, his coach increasingly is amused and enthused. Eventually, inevitably, Father Hibbert agrees to train Ralph for the race of a lifetime.

Throughout “Saint Ralph,” McGowan strikes a satisfying balance of whimsy and realism. He brings an aptly light touch to potentially sappy material, indulging in overstatement only while underscoring a climactic scene with an overbearing rendition of a Leonard Cohen song.

Despite a few jokes (and one hilarious “American Pie”-style sight gag) involving the nascent sexual urges of the adolescent protagonist, funny business for most part is as restrained as dramatic content.

Newcomer Butcher make a winning impression while hitting all the right notes as Ralph, a character whose mischief and resilience bring to mind the adolescent hero of Francois Truffaut’s “The 400 Blows.” As the dry-witted, Nietzsche-reading Father Hibbert, Scott offers a sly, subtle performance that makes an effective foil for his younger co-star.

Tamara Hope displays impressive poise and sharp comic timing as Emma, a classmate immune to Ralph’s romantic overtures — or so she claims — because she wants to become a nun. While Gordon Pinsent struggles manfully to bring nuance and shading to a one-dimensional role, Jennifer Tilly breezes through with a pleasing turn as a blunt-spoken but kind-hearted nurse.

Period flavor is greatly enhanced by production designer Matthew Davies and costumer Anne Dixon.

Saint Ralph

Canada

Production

An Odeon Films presentation of an Alliance Atlantis and Amaze Film + Television Inc. production. (International sales: Odeon Films, Toronto.) Produced by Teza Lawrence, Michael Souther, Seaton McLean, Andrea Mann. Executive producers, Peter Sussman, Marguerite Pigott. Directed, written by Michael McGowan.

Crew

Camera (color), Rene Ohashi; editor, Susan Maggi; music, Andrew Lockington; production designer, Matthew Davies; costume designer, Anne Dixon; sound (Dolby Digital), Valentin Pricop; assistant director, Fergus Barnes. Reviewed at Toronto Film Festival (Canada First!), Sept. 13, 2004. Running time: 98 MIN.

With

Ralph Walker - Adam Butcher Father Hibbert - Campbell Scott Father Fitzpatrick - Gordon Pinsent Nurse Alice - Jennifer Tilly Emma - Shauna MacDonald Chester - Michael Kanev Claire Collins - Tamara Hope
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