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Friday, Feb. 24, 2006

Loneliness of a long-distance runner

Saint Ralph

Rating: * * * 1/2 (out of 5)
Director: Michael McGowan
Running time: 98 minutes
Language: English
Opens March 4
[See Japan Times movie listings]

"Saint Ralph" is a small gem of a work that premiered at the Toronto Film Festival in 2004 and immediately lit up filmmaker Michael McGowan's name as one to watch in the increasingly interesting Canadian film industry.

News photo

"Saint Ralph," titled "Little Runner" in Japan, is straightforward and single-minded, and, like the title character, moves at the steady, confident pace of a good long-distance runner. There's not a scrap of cynicism to be found here, and no torturous plot twists or snarky dialogue. It's "Rocky" minus the grit and blood, crossed with the innocence of old Hollywood studio pictures, which makes it a little too formulaic at times, but don't worry -- you'll still need the hankie to wipe your eyes.

The story is set in a small Canadian town named Hamilton. This being 1953, no Internet, cell-phones and video arcades disturb the flow of events in the life of 14-year-old protagonist Ralph Walker (played with refreshing vivacity Adam Butcher), who attends a strict Catholic school and visits his sick mother at hospital in the evenings. Ralph's father has died in the war and he has no close relatives, so it's up to him to deploy all his survival skills. He subsists on school meals and selling off the family furniture, bit by bit, to pay for heating bills.

Still, Ralph remains perky and stubbornly positive, which often lands him on the blacklist of the excessively sober school principal Father Fitzpatrick (Gordon Pinsent). But Ralph's equilibrium is shattered when, one afternoon, mom Emma (Shauna Fitzpatrick) falls into a mysterious coma. The doctors tells him that nothing -- short of a "miracle" -- will save her and Ralph is determined to be the instigator of that miracle without quite understanding what it may be.

In school, he overhears a conversation about the Boston Marathon and how winning it is a true miracle. From that moment, Ralph decides to run, and take home the Boston trophy. He's sure that as soon as he does so, Emma is bound to wake up and they can go back to being mother and son, albeit in a hospital room. He wastes no time signing up for the school's cross-country running team, helmed by maverick priest Father Hibbert (Campbell Scott).

At first Ralph is all flailing arms and legs, but soon he gets the hang of it and begins training in earnest, much to the wrath of Father Fitzpatrick (who sees Ralph's efforts as perversion of the Christian concept of the miracle, i.e., blasphemous) and the amusement of the rest of Hamilton. In the meantime, Ralph never fails to look in on Emma lying on her hospital bed. "I miss you Mom," he tells her matter-of-factly and that was it for me: The floodgates of my eyes were officially open.

To McGowan's credit, however, his film avoids heaping on total sap. Emotions are underplayed and the dialogue isn't overly verbose. Ralph is the most expressive and verbose of the characters but that's not saying much since he spends vast amounts of time running, training and consuming colossal plates of school sandwiches. "I'm always so hungry" becomes his perpetual lament, to which Father Hibbert, a former Olympic marathon runner, laughs and replies: "Yeah, I know what that's like."

Father Hibbert is, at first, skeptical of Ralph's commitment, but once he becomes convinced, he opts for the role of Ralph's personal coach, on and off the track. He encourages Ralph to open his mind by reading both Nietzsche (gasp) and the stories about saints, and not to look upon his fate as a tragedy. "I can't pray, I don't know the meaning of praying," says Ralph. Father Hibbert says that's OK because "after 20 miles every runner starts praying."

"Saint Ralph" builds on the joy and pain of long-distance running, made all the more poignant through Ralph's gangly, skinny frame. Among the adult runners he seems hopelessly small, but when the gun goes off you see that Ralph's light frame is an asset; he literally seems to sprout wings on his shoulder blades and ankles as he covers the pavement in long, easy strides.

Ralph may not be the most privileged of kids, but the story draws a glorious time in his life when he grappled with the hard facts of life, still believed in miracles and threw his entire being into achieving a tremendous goal. Watch his ascent up Boston's famed Heartbreak Hill . . . if nothing else, "Saint Ralph" will inspire you to lace up those trainers and get moving.

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