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In his autobiography, Brat: an 80s story, Andrew McCarthy reflects 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 build upon a CW interview in 2016 where McCarthy commented, “Heaven Help Us was a very lovely movie that twelve people saw”.
Catholic Boys, based on a 1978 thesis written by Charles Purpura, was renamed Heaven Help Us in the United States before its release. The HBO film, distributed by Tri-Star, was to suffer a highly confused publicity campaign that painted the picture as a Porky’s inspired comedy based in a 1960s New York Catholic school. Yet, this couldn’t be further from the delicate coming-of-age themes held at the heart of Catholic Boys and may explain some of the confusion it generated on its arrival in US cinemas.
Giving the movie two and a half stars, Roger Ebert proclaimed, “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”.
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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. These comments are fascinating when considering the scandals of abuse that have since engulfed the Catholic Church and many of its institutions. But these arguments are for another day. Although, I would add that Catholic Boys provides us with a balanced view of the positives and negatives of the 1960s Catholic school experience and is, in no way, as damning in its vision as The Basketball Diaries (1995).
Michael Dunn (Andrew McCarthy) is a new boy at St Basil’s Catholic School in Brooklyn during the Autumn term of 1965. Michael is a quiet yet confident kid who feels trapped both at home and in school. He lives with his grandparents and younger sister, and his destiny appears to have already been decided; he will become a Catholic brother. But what does he want? Nobody around him seems the slightest bit interested in that question. As Michael attempts to settle into school life, he meets Caesar (Malcolm Danare), a bullied kid who strives for academic perfection. Caeser appears thick-skinned and is undoubtedly clever, but much like Michael, Caeser believes his destiny is set in stone. He will go into academia and achieve wealth and prestige no matter the consequences to his enjoyment of life.
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Meanwhile, Caeser’s bully, Rooney (Kevin Dillon) and his group of outcasts, Corbet (Patrick Dempsy) and Williams (Stephen Geoffreys) are just trying to get by with as few school 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. At the same time, 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.
Catholic Boys is, at its core, a film about the control wielded by the state, church and academia. For Michael, the church’s power, his bottled-up anger and his grandparent’s unwillingness to listen prevent him from becoming the man he wants to be. At the same time, for Caeser, it’s the pressure to outperform everyone else academically that leads to his nervousness and fear of failure, while 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 love interest Danni (Mary Stuart Masterson), who will spark revolution as the church and state intervene in her life and destroy all she has built.
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Catholic Boys is about the moment you realise that your wishes and dreams come second to the social expectations of the adults and social structures surrounding you. Here Michael Dinner’s movie focuses on the power of religion, state and education in the angry and confused awakening of our teens, as they realise their lives are manipulated, controlled and pre-determined by the adults and institutions around them.
These core themes of institutional oppression, state intervention and pre-set power dynamics are fascinating and do not just centre on our young characters. The brothers are equally subservient to the accepted rules and duties surrounding them. Here 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. Through its one-hour and forty-four-minute runtime, Catholic Boys challenges us to unpick each character’s motivations, young and old, and the building blocks of their actions and inactions.
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Far from being a classic comedy (although it’s clear that Stephen Geoffreys character is placed in the film for this purpose), Catholic Boys is a coming-of-age drama. The film’s publicity campaign from Tri-Star ignored this, providing audiences with a very different film to the one displayed on the posters in cinema foyers.
Catholic Boys doesn’t always get it right, and there are moments where it struggles to build upon its core messages due to the runtime. However, with outstanding central performances from McCarthy, Dillon, Danare, Masterson, Sutherland, Heard and Patterson, it remains a powerful coming-of-age drama that reflects its time and place beautifully. Once seen, never forgotten, Catholic Boys (Heaven Help Us) never received the acclaim or attention of its 1985 cousins, The Breakfast Club and St Elmo’s Fire. But take it from me, Michael Dinners Catholic Boys is long overdue for a reappraisal and rerelease, and if you are lucky enough to find a rare DVD or VHS copy, I am sure you will agree.
Note to readers: The Catholic Boys frequently contains casual homophobia that would not be tolerated in films today.