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In his autobiography, Brat: an 80s Story, Andrew McCarthy reflected on his 1985 movie Catholic Boys by stating, “While not remotely the most successful of the films I made in the 80s, Heaven Help Us (Catholic Boys) remains my favourite.” These comments would build upon a CW interview in 2016 where McCarthy commented, “Heaven Help Us was a very lovely movie that twelve people saw”. Based on a 1978 thesis by Charles Purpura, Catholic Boys was renamed Heaven Help Us in the United States as the HBO film, distributed by Tri-Star, suffered from a highly confused publicity campaign. The publicity would paint the picture as a Porky’s inspired comedy based in a 1960s New York Catholic School, a world away from its delicate coming-of-age comedy/drama.
Giving the movie two and a half stars, Roger Ebert wrote, “Heaven Help Us” does not have the slightest ambition to be a serious movie about Catholic high schools; I can’t understand why the classroom scenes are so overplayed. As the sadistic teaching brother (Jay Patterson) slams his students against the blackboard, all we’re really watching is a lapse in judgment by the moviemakers. The scenes are so ugly and depressing that they throw the rest of the movie out of balance”. These criticisms were not restricted to Ebert; many critics of the day argued that Catholic Boys was neither a comedy nor drama and did little to reflect the positives of the Catholic School experience. Considering the scandals of abuse that have since engulfed the Catholic Church, these comments are undoubtedly, fascinating.
Michael Dunn (Andrew McCarthy), a quiet but confident kid, is a new boy at St Basil’s Catholic School in Brooklyn during the Autumn term of 1965. Michael lives with his grandparents and younger sister following a family tragedy, and his destiny appears to have already been decided. Micheal will become a Catholic Brother. But is that really what he wants? For Micheal, nobody seems the slightest bit interested in that question. As he attempts to settle into school, he meets Caesar (Malcolm Danare), a bullied kid who strives for academic perfection. Caeser appears thick-skinned and is undoubtedly clever. Like Michael, he believes his destiny is already set in stone; he will go into academia to achieve wealth and prestige no matter the consequences. Meanwhile, Caeser’s bully, Rooney (Kevin Dillon), and his group of outcasts, Corbet (Patrick Dempsy) and Williams (Stephen Geoffreys), are just trying to keep their heads above water with as few beatings from the brothers as possible, their destinies pre-ordained by their detachment from the ‘system’.
Brother Thaddeus (Donald Sutherland), the school’s headmaster, is cold but essentially fair, while the recently arrived Brother Timothy (John Heard) is keen to modernise the school and the role of the brothers in pastoral support. But Brother Constance (Jay Patterson) is volatile, traditional and sadistic, and his presence will bring Michael, Ceaser, Rooney, Corbet and Williams together in an unlikely partnership.
At its core, Catholic Boys is a film about the control wielded by the state, church and academia. For Michael, the unchallenged power of the church, his bottled-up anger and his grandparent’s unwillingness to listen prevent him from becoming the man he wants to be. While for Caeser, the pressure to outperform everyone else academically leads to his nervousness, fear of failure and the suppression of any personal enjoyment. Meanwhile, for Rooney, it’s the prison of school doctrine and the desire to escape that lead to his constant rebellions. But, it’s Michael’s new love interest Danni (Mary Stuart Masterson), who will help the boys to spark a revolution as the church and state intervene in her life and destroy all she has built.
Micheal Dinner’s Catholic Boys is about the moment you realise that your wishes and dreams come second to the social expectations of the adults and structures surrounding you. Here Dinner focuses on the power of religion, state and education in suppressing a teenage desire for self-actualisation. The older Brothers are subservient to the accepted rules and duties surrounding them, conditioned in their teens just like the boys they now seek to educate. John Heard’s Brother Timothy is desperate to find a way to transform the school environment, yet he cannot find a path through the rules and regulations surrounding him. While Jay Patterson’s violent and abusive Brother Constance believes the church will always protect him above his students no matter his actions. Far from being a classic 80s comedy, Catholic Boys is a delicate and complex coming-of-age drama.
Once seen, never forgotten, Catholic Boys (Heaven Help Us) never received the attention of its 1985 cousins, The Breakfast Club and St Elmo’s Fire. Yet Michael Dinner’s film is a fascinating, engaging, layered comedy/drama that ultimately suffered from a confused pre-release campaign. As a result, Catholic Boys is long overdue for a critical reappraisal and a digital re-release.
Note to readers: The Catholic Boys frequently contains casual homophobia that would not be tolerated in films today.
LESS THAN ZERO