Heaven Help Us

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I was a public school kid who spent most of his childhood walking back and forth to school each day. I only got to ride the bus to school for the two years I attended middle school. You had to live a mile and a half from the school to get free bussing and, as luck would have it, that line ran right through the front door of our house. The powers that be came out to measure it and everything. During those two years of being a school bus passenger, I encountered a new group of kids I had never met before. You see, the local catholic school kids also rode our bus. Catholic school was a completely foreign concept to me. I mean, was it church or was it school? I soon learned that the religious environment these kids learned in wasn’t worth much. These kids who spent every day with priests and nuns were among the nastiest youngsters that I ever encountered. They swore like sailors and many of them were just downright mean. Our film today also has a less than glowing opinion of catholic school. It’s a look at a Brooklyn catholic school in the mid 60’s. Here comes 1985’s Heaven Help Us.

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The story centers on a young man named Michael Dunn (Andrew McCarthy) who has been sent to live with his grandparents after the deaths of his parents. He is sent to school at St. Basil’s, since his grandmother is convinced it was his parent’s wish that he one day become a priest. Of course, this is not how Michael sees his future. Upon arrival, Michael butts heads with some of the other students, but eventually they become pals. This includes under-achieving bully Ed Rooney (Kevin Dillon). Wait! Ed Rooney!? Like the principal from Ferris Bueller!? There’s also Rooney’s pal Corbett (Patrick Dempsey, who barely has any dialogue), the often masturbating Williams (Stephen Geoffreys) and over-weight brainiac Caesar (Malcolm Danare). We follow these guys through various hijinks and they quickly become the ones the brothers who run the school look for when trouble abounds.

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Michael doesn’t just connect with his fellow students, though. He soon becomes entranced by a local girl named Danni (Mary Stuart Masterson). She helps run her family’s soda shop for her sick father and is (gasp) not catholic. Many of the catholic school students frequent the soda shop, which leads to the brothers seeing it as a bit of a den of sin. They even raid the joint from time and generally make life difficult for the spirited young woman. Eventually, the brothers take things a bit too far, which leads to Michael and his friends escalating their fight against their teachers.

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Heaven Help Us is very episodic in its nature, jumping around from situation to situation. A lot of it is pretty entertaining. We see our lead characters hanging out, awkwardly going to the school dance, seeing the Pope come to New York, etc. It’s interesting enough but doesn’t amount to anything all that extraordinary. The main thing the filmmakers seem to be hanging on is the impact that the film’s big climactic moment will have. I don’t really want to spoil it, but I will say it centers around one brother in particular. Brother Constance (Jay Patterson), who is, to put things lightly, a bit sadistic. Take everything you’ve heard about corporal punishment in parochial school, multiply by 100, and you’ve got Brother Constance. This whole subplot brings us to a confrontation moment which certainly gives the viewer a quick adrenaline rush. I mean, a rah-rah moment starring Andrew McCarthy!? Who would’ve thunk it! A few moments later, though, when the incident reaches its resolution, it’s more than a bit unsatisfying. With all the nastiness we see out of Brother Constance through the rest of the film, his fate comes across as another example of the catholic church sweeping things under the rug. Needless to say, that doesn’t play well today. The sequence still has a degree of impact, but it’s a shame that the filmmakers put all their emotional eggs into this particular basket.

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The film does feature a very appealing cast who all do a fine job, albeit a fine job playing their standard types of characters. Andrew McCarthy is certainly charming, but he’s working from the same playbook he employs in Class, St. Elmo’s Fire, Pretty in Pink, and so on. Mary Stuart Masterson is adorable here, but pretty much in all the same ways that Watts is in Some Kind of Wonderful. As for Kevin Dillon, well he’s Kevin Dillon. This is the sort of role he plays…that’s why he was hired…that’s what we get. It’s a no brainer. There are many other familiar faces who show up for some interesting moments. The ladies from the nearby catholic girls school include Yeardley Smith and Dana Barron (the first Audrey of the Vacation series). They factor into a fun scene involving “parking” on a drawbridge after the school dance. It is fun seeing Fright Night’s Evil Ed (Geoffreys) in an early role, and the first credited role for Patrick Dempsey, though he is given almost nothing to do. Donald Sutherland is well cast as the school’s headmaster, Brother Thaddeus, and John Heard is fun as the more relatable Brother Timothy. The entire cast does a fine job, but none of them is really bring anything that is outside of the realm of what we expect from their typical performances. Though, I gotta give it up for Wallace Shawn. Sure, he brings to the table the sort of performance you’d expect him to, but his sermon on lust before the school dance is nothing short of magical.

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Heaven Help Us does succeed in bringing the audience into a fascinating, and at times quite disturbing, world. The characters are interesting, though I feel there are probably more layers to them than what we are treated to with the buy-the-book performances this cast provides. The film still manages to be enjoyable on a certain level, but I must confess, it falls a bit short of sainthood.

 

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