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Heaven Help Us (1985)

May 16th, 2007 · 5 Comments

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In Brooklyn of 1965, St. Basil’s Catholic Boys School receives a new student, Michael Dunn (Andrew McCarthy), an orphaned teen sent with his sister to live with their grandparents. Dunn befriends another outsider, Caesar (Malcolm Danare), the brain of the student body. Caesar endures the torments of Rooney (Kevin Dillon), a cocky athlete who manages to work the word “faggot” into nearly every sentence.

Instructing the boys is the tough but fair headmaster Brother Thadeus (Donald Sutherland), the progressive Brother Timothy (John Heard), and the sadistic Brother Constance (Jay Patterson), whose classroom punishments become more extreme as Rooney’s stunts grow more numerous.

Dunn stands up to Rooney, who befriends the new kid rather than go through the hassle of kicking his ass every time they come into contact. Hanging out at the soda fountain across the street, Dunn meets Danni (Mary Stuart Masterson), a tough talking high school dropout who runs the shop for her despondent father. Dunn takes all the degradation he can from Brother Constance, but with Danni’s help, finally decides to do something about it.

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Producer Dan Wigutow had left L.A. to move to New York in search of fresh material. He found an NYU Film School dropout named Charles Purpura, an East Coast singer, songwriter and playwright who had written a semi-autobiographical screenplay about his school days called Catholic Boys just as National Lampoon’s Animal House was taking the box office by storm.

The script went through rewrites over four years. Fox liked the idea, but objected to Wigutow’s choice of director, Michael Dinner, whose experience was limited to TV. Silver Screen, a new film unit of HBO, was searching for projects and agreed to finance Catholic Boys. Retitled Heaven Help Us on the insistence of its distributor – Tri-Star – the picture was marketed as a horny teenager movie, and encountered mixed reactions.

Heaven Help Us is a feloniously overlooked film, an offbeat, character driven sleeper. Charles Purpura’s script feels personal, but like a good novel, it defies categorization. There’s some raunch, but it’s not a teenage comedy. There’s melodrama, but it’s not a heartwarming coming-of-age tale. It’s definitely not a romantic comedy, in spite of a relationship that develops between Andrew McCarthy and Mary Stuart Masterson’s characters.

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The cast should be indication of how good this script was. In addition to Donald Sutherland and John Heard – who received top billing – Mary Stuart Masterson continues to impress me. She owned the teenage gal pal parts of the ’80s and this is one of her most admirable. Kevin Dillon plays bully, homophobe, would-be date rapist, prankster and standup guy all in the same movie, and his performance would be reason enough to recommend the film.

Stephen Geoffreys and Patrick Dempsey appear as Dillon’s buddies. Yeardley Smith plays a nerd with a crush on Caesar, while Wallace Shawn steals the flick as a brother who fervently lectures the student body on lust. Dunn’s sister Boo (Jennifer Dundas) collects flowers and lays under the covers, pretending to be dead, until her brother performs last rites. Even the late Calvert DeForest – Larry “Bud” Melman – pops up, playing the most memorable drawbridge operator in film history.

I’m not a fan of Andrew McCarthy’s, and the character he plays here is low key, almost passive, but I didn’t mind. The movie has a natural, unforced rhythm and felt real to me. Most of all, it’s really, really funny. Dillion’s exclamation while the boys watch Blue Hawaii (“Jesus, what’d they do to Elvis? Cut his balls off or something?”) cracked me up. This is absolutely worth a rental.

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Tags: Brother/sister relationship · Coming of age · Cult favorite · Father/daughter relationship · High school · Master and pupil · Unconventional romance

5 responses so far ↓

  • 1 Culture Snob // May 18, 2007 at 9:05 pm

    Thanks for contributing to the blog-a-thon.

    Although I haven’t seen the movie, it sounds like one of those unfortunate situations when the marketing/positioning of a film is one of the main reasons it fails when it’s released. I think people can sniff out when something is being promoted as something it isn’t — there’s the scent of desperation — and the people who do see it hate it because it wasn’t what they were promised.

  • 2 cinetrix // May 21, 2007 at 1:56 pm

    Can I get an amen?

    I LOVED this movie as a moody adolescent for all the reasons you outlined–plus Otis Redding’s “I’ve Been Loving You Too Long.” I even wrote an essay arguing that it was more than just a teen comedy–when I was 16. It didn’t get me into the fancy-pants summer program I was applying to [philistines], but I stand by my argument–and yours–to this day.

  • 3 tony // Jul 25, 2010 at 1:55 pm

    great a realistic story from the fifties and late sixties. i graduated high school in 1962 and went to an all boys catholic school in Brooklyn, and this movie is so accurate about how things went then. i even had catholic brothers teaching wearing robes

  • 4 Jerry // Jan 18, 2012 at 4:21 pm

    I agree with you on how under appreciated this movie is and that Kevin Dillon’s performance is superb, he like the movie has always been totally under valued. I do disagree on a couple of points you make: Wallace Shawn plays a priest, not a brother, Br. Constance becomes more sadistic as the film goes on, but he never harms Rooney, his victims are always the weaker boys and at no point does Dunn, with or without the help of Danni “decide” to take action against Br. Constance, he makes a spur of the moment decision to tackle Constance when he is beating Caesar. I do agree that this is a very accurate portrayal of Catholic Schools of that era, having gone to a Catholic Grammar School in Chicago in spite of being a Protestant…now that makes for a unique situation in and of itself!!!!

  • 5 Jeremy // Jan 7, 2015 at 11:23 am

    If movies were interactive or the characters in the movie could talk back I would tell off Brother Constance especially when he whips the boys in the gym. If there were interactive movies and if you could interact with the characters on the scene where Brother Constance whips the boys in the gym I would tell off brother Constance and call him every curse word in the book. I would call him a baby f**** I would tell Brother Constance that its his fault that Obama is the most persecuted president in history and I would tell brother Constance that it is his fault that there is national and international news on local newscasts and I would tell brother Constance that TV stations cancel local newscasts and I would tell Brother Constance that someone should cancel him out. And I would tell Brother Constance that I him going to kill him. I wish someday technology would advance where you can interact with the characters in a movie and if you could interact with the movie characters then you could duke it out with the bad guy on the movie.

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