Before you fall in step with its sunny themes of boyhood and heroism, know that Michael McGowan’s "Saint Ralph" isn’t especially strong on the facts.
For instance, there’s no official record of an irrepressible Canadian teenager named Ralph Walker who tries to revive his comatose mother by winning the 1954 Boston Marathon. This "Canada" business is pretty dubious, too.
Imaginary athletes we can handle, but whole countries? North of North Dakota? Outrageous.
In any case, Adam Butcher makes a splendid debut as Walker, a runty 14-year-old prepster who struggles to fit in at a Catholic-run boys school in 1950s Hamilton (that’s a city in "Canada"). Left fatherless by the war in Europe, Ralph is a smooth operator but, alas, one whose charms work better on adults (shades of Max Fischer from "Rushmore") than his peers. Butcher excels in the role because he instinctively understands the "otherness" of fatherless children, that mix of precociousness and driftfulness that can be both dynamic and sad.
When his cancer-stricken mother slips into a coma, Ralph knows he needs a miracle. Mistaking a dismissive remark made by a cynical exjock priest named Hibbert (Campbell Scott) for literal church doctrine, Ralph decides that winning North America’s most prestigious distance race is just the miracle he needs.
Embarking on a rigorous and very public training regimen, Ralph becomes an embarrassment to the school’s rigidly bureaucratic headmaster (Gordon Pinsent) and an inspiration to Hibbert. At one point, apparently unaware that he’s become a vestment-clad cliché, Hibbert declares: "I didn’t believe in anything until I met that boy!"
McGowan ("My Dog Vincent") — himself a champion runner — has created an endearing if obtusely sentimental story of boyhood and faith, like Danny Boyle’s "Millions" with a divine case of runner’s high. It’s interesting to note that Ralph’s clearest moments of revelation come when somebody is pounding the pavement, not the pulpit. Not to disrespect the clergy, but McGowan’s message is clear: You’re less likely to find God in church than in a shopworn pair of sneakers.