"Saint Ralph" is an amiable sentimental fantasy, joining running, religion and a boy with a whole lot of problems into an earnest production that entertains even as it milks some of its situations for all they're worth.
In writer-director Michael McGowan's scenario, Ralph does not start out with sainthood on his mind. Not even particularly religious, he's a 14-year-old student at a Catholic school just trying to get along in small-town Canada in 1953.
That takes some doing, because Ralph's father died in World War II and his mother is hospitalized with a vague but potentially fatal disease. Though no adults seem to know it, Ralph is living by himself and taking his lumps from the lunkheads he goes to school with.
As played by newcomer Adam Butcher, Ralph does have a fine quirky spirit, a kind of early teen bravado that wears better than you might expect. Which is a good thing, because in the film's early going, what we mostly get is Ralph's overdone interest in sex.
But then Ralph's mother slips into a coma, and he overhears someone say it would take a miracle for her to wake up. That bit of information lodges in the young man's brain, and when someone on the school track team makes the offhand comment that it would take a miracle for Ralph to win the Boston Marathon, an obsession is born: He will win the marathon and his mother will get well as a result.
Naturally the school's stern headmaster, Father Fitzpatrick (Canadian veteran Gordon Pinsent), is less than entranced with this odd notion of religious belief. Fortunately for Ralph and for the movie, he has a powerful ally in Father George Hibbert, a teacher beautifully played by Campbell Scott.
In one of those movie coincidences that Scott's excellent performance makes believable, Father Hibbert just happens to have been Canada's top marathoner before he gave it up to join the priesthood. Impressed by Ralph's miraculous capacity for hard work, he gives the young runner the benefit of his experience and slowly but surely points the lad toward a race he calls "the ultimate test of fortitude."
Writer-director McGowan, himself a former winner of the Detroit Marathon, knows and cares about running, and that and young Butcher's personality make the film's considerable training footage involving.
McGowan's direction alternates, uncertainly at times, between sharp moments like on-screen references to numerous saints and the excessive uplift of sentimental music. Though Butcher is appealing, "Saint Ralph" is anchored by Scott's persuasive work as a model of intelligent decency. Though he cautions his students that "against boredom, the gods themselves fight in vain," no one will be bored when he is on the screen.
MPAA rating: PG-13, for some sexual content and partial nudity
Times guidelines: A lot of obsessing about sex in the early going
Released by Samuel Goldwyn Films. Director Michael McGowan. Producers Seaton McLean, Andrea Mann, Mike Souther, Teza Lawrence. Executive producers Peter Sussman, Marguerite Pigott. Screenplay Michael McGowan. Cinematographer Rene Ohashi. Editor Susan Maggi. Costumes Anne Dixon. Music Andrew Lockington. Production design Matthew Davies. Art director Kenneth Watkins. Running time: 1 hour, 38 minutes. In limited release.