Heaven Help Us

June 6, 2011

You can often sense the level of confidence a film studio has in a movie by the kind of title changes that take place. For instance, a subdued teen comedy that began life as Heart and Soul was changed to the leering Getting Lucky and finally to the current Mischief. Clearly, Heart and Soul was not quite snappy enough for the quick kill the studio thought was necessary.

A similar case is Heaven Help Us, which began life as Catholic Boys. That’s not an especially grabby hook, and the film itself does not supply the usual quotient of gross-outs, so Tri-Star Pictures decided to shoot for a little more mass appeal. Heaven Help Us more directly suggests a knockabout romp, and removes any hint of esoterica.

The film itself is neither serious nor slapstick, which probably prompted Tri-Star’s confusion. It’s a coming-of-age comedy, which means there are loads of jokes about sexual awakenings and bodily functions. It also has some modest ambitions involving the importance of friendship and independence in an oppressive situation.

The situation is a Catholic boys’ school, in 1965 Brooklyn. The brothers who run the school are not yet enlightened by Vatican II, and discipline tends to run from harsh to cruel. We are introduced to the school through the eyes of a new kid, played by Andrew McCarthy. McCarthy, who did a similar sensitive-narrator role in Class, is very good at playing this kind of sympathetic innocent, and he keeps Heaven Help Us watchable.

The administrators include the authoritarian principal Brother Thaddeus (Donald Sutherland); the hip newcomer Brother Timothy (John Heard); the cherubic fire-and-brimstone preacher who, at a co-ed dance, lectures on the disgustingly detailed hell that awaits the kids if they give in to Lust, then exhorts them to “Have a nice time” (Wallace Shawn); and a sadistic teacher who enjoys dishing out beatings (Jay Patterson).

McCarthy is also introduced to a core group of friends, most of whom run to stereotype, especially a fat smart kid (Malcolm Danare) and a cocky delinquent (Kevin Dillon, the younger brother of Matt).

Their adventures are alternately predictable and amusing, and every now and then first-time director Michael Dinner captures a mood beautifully, such as the quiet dance enjoyed by McCarthy and his girl (Mary Stuart Masterson) at a lonely beachside café, or the frantic “raid” on the local malt shop by the brothers.

Dinner (and his great cinematographer, Miroslav Ondricek) captures enough privileged moments to suggest that, if he gets his hands on a project that doesn’t require a requisite number of pranks and dumb gags, he might come up with something good and true someday.

First published in the Herald, February 16, 1985

Yeah, so a few years later I watched Heaven Help Us again and found it even better than the first time around. Michael Dinner had gone on to do the lovely Off Beat as well as many fine episodes of “The Wonder Years,” and I wrote an appreciation of his craft for Film Comment in 1991. At that point one assumed that the talented Mr. Dinner would swing back ’round to feature films, but he’s remained mostly in television, content to be one of the top small-screen directors in the business. This movie has many truly funny things in it (including the pranks and dumb gags I seem suspicious of here), and the casting is exceptionally good, especially amongst the brothers: Wallace Shawn would’ve achieved YouTube immortality even if he’d only acted in this movie, and Jay Patterson is one of the most terrifying evil priests committed to film.