In 'Saint Ralph,' a teen races for a miracle

As the title character of "Saint Ralph" turns the corner in his neck-and-neck race to the finish line of the 1954 Boston Marathon, those who are familiar with the city's layout may feel disoriented. As depicted in the movie, the Charles River flows through the middle of Back Bay, the heart of Boston. In reality, the Charles River only borders the neighborhood.

"When you're trying to shoot a period film on a limited budget, you look for the frame," explains director Michael McGowan. The Canadian journalist-turned-filmmaker quickly learned that if one films scenes with buildings from the era - framing each shot to exclude, say, the local Home Depot - then taking liberties with Boston's geography is an inevitable byproduct.

The relocation of the Charles River is hardly the most fanciful aspect of "Saint Ralph," the story of a 14-year-old Catholic boy in a small Canadian town during the 1950s. Ralph's father died during the war, and his ailing mother has fallen into a coma. When Ralph is ordered to join the cross-country team as punishment for an infraction of school rules, he begins to believe he can save his mother if he can attain a miraculous victory in Boston's famous foot race.

"The genesis was the notion of a 14-year-old trying to win the Boston Marathon," recalls McGowan. Once he had that idea, he had to figure out what to do with it.

A runner himself, McGowan wondered whether running itself should be the subject of the film. He found that there aren't many movies on that theme (he cites the 1981 Oscar winner "Chariots of Fire" as "the gold standard" of running films) and decided he needed something more.

"I like movies that are rooted in a time and a place," he says, pointing to films like "My Life as a Dog" and "Billy Elliot" as examples of coming-of-age stories that use their locations and time periods to good advantage. McGowan, his wife and three children live 45 miles outside of Toronto, so setting the story in small-town Canada made sense.

Asked why he set the film in the 1950s, he replies that marathon running was simpler back then. McGowan has run in marathons himself, and did quite a bit of research on the Boston Marathon. Subsequent teenage runners have been able to best the winning time of the actual 1954 race, but if McGowan had set the story in the present day, then Ralph would be up against the cadre of runners from Kenya who have dominated the race in recent years. His chance of victory would have been much less credible.

McGowan strove for authenticity, even if he couldn't afford to shoot the actual race scenes in Massachusetts. But the director employed authentic touches such as hiring a Massachusetts actor to ensure that the race announcer in the film had a bona fide accent. He also added a few quirks that might not be realistic - such as Ralph building up his muscles by running backward at times - but seemed to fit the character.

Ralph is played by young Adam Butcher. Both cast and crew were impressed by his sense of professionalism in his first starring film role. McGowan told him that shooting the movie over six weeks would be hard work. "He rose to the challenge," says the director. "He was not a kid in my mind. He was a working actor."

As for the adult cast, US audiences may recognize Campbell Scott as the young priest (and former runner) who helps Ralph train, and Jennifer Tilly in a role as a nurse at the hospital tending to his mother. For Canadian audiences, though, it is the presence of Gordon Pinsent as the senior - and more conservative - Father Fitzpatrick that was the casting coup.

Although Pinsent has done some acting in US films (most notably in "The Shipping News"), he is something of an icon to Canadians. "In Canada he's a national treasure," says the director. "He's definitely one of the more famous Canadians who stayed in Canada."

Having finished its run at home, "Saint Ralph" now begins its marathon sprint through the US, Europe, and Japan. McGowan is already hard at work on a new script, and has been fielding offers to direct scripts by others, which he does not entirely rule out.

"I won't direct something I don't believe in," he says. "Some of the stuff I turned down may not be [a good move] careerwise, but it's good for me."

Like his movie's hero, McGowan intends to set his own pace.

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