Ralph Walker (Adam Butcher) is a ninth-grader at St. Magnus, a parochial school in Hamilton, Ontario, who finds himself in desperate need of a miracle. The year is 1952. His father and grandparents are dead, and only his mother (Shauna MacDonald) is left, in a deep coma and barely clinging to life at a local hospital. Naïve and impulsive, Ralph is told that his winning the Boston Marathon would constitute a valid miracle, and he believes that if he performs one his mother will survive.
Luckily for Ralph, Father George Hibbert (Campbell Scott), a runner once scheduled to compete in the Olympics, is the track coach and sees potential in this awkward, unpromising 14-year-old boy. Also supporting Ralph is Nurse Alice (Jennifer Tilly), who is also a former athlete, and willing to share her time and barbells with the runner-in-training. At the same time, the tyrannical Father Fitzpatrick (Gordon Pinsent) regards Ralph's pursuit of a miracle as dangerously blasphemous and does everything he can to discourage him.
Additional complications arise as a result of Ralph's living completely on his own. Authorities are wising up to the fact that his grandparents are dead and, with his mother incapacitated, he is virtually an orphan. Ralph's true love-although he is fascinated by anyone female-is Claire Collins (Tamara Hope) a remarkably self-possessed young Catholic determined, she believes, to become a nun.
The casting choices by Saint Ralph producers Seaton McLean, Andrea Mann, Mike Souther and Teza Lawrence, as well as casting directors Deirdre Bowen and Jennifer Lewis, are well-nigh perfect. Butcher offers a fresh, energetic portrait of a young man teetering between goofiness and glory. Scott provides a low-key portrayal of an unusually rebellious priest dealing with his own demons. Pinsent's villainous schoolmaster is both powerful and intimidating. Tilly's Nurse Alice is one of the most restrained and absorbing performance this actress has ever given. Even MacDonald, who never leaves her hospital bed, offers a charming portrait of a seriously ill woman worthy of love and respect from the moment we meet her.
What writer-director Michael McGowan has pulled off is a bit of a miracle. His principal character is someone who is both ludicrous and inspiring. Early scenes in the film when Ralph is displaying naked lust are comic gems, while his grim determination to outrun adults, once convinced of the need for a miracle to keep his mother alive, is exhilarating.
Also on the plus side is the sensible, measured resolution. The script contains some blunt twists and turns-not just for dramatic sake, but because ultimately Saint Ralph is more interested in the reality of life than fantasy.