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MOVIE REVIEW

'Saint Ralph' a familiar salute to the human spirit

When little Ralph Walker (Adam Butcher) informs the stodgy principal of his Catholic school that he'd like to accomplish an amazing feat, Father Fitzpatrick (Gordon Pinsent) tells the boy, ''You're a 14-year-old. Greatness is not an option."

He has grossly underestimated this Ontario ninth-grader, who spends the rest of ''Saint Ralph," Michael McGowan's good-natured triumph-of-the-human-spirit comedy, trying to prove Father Fitzpatrick wrong. The kid has his sights on winning the 1954 Boston Marathon, and the priest is just fulfilling his obligations as the movie's stubborn villain.

Ralph's late father was a war hero, his mother lies (inexplicably) in a coma, and Ralph gets it in his head that the best way to save himself from official orphanhood is to perform a miracle. Apparently, winning the marathon (for his mother) counts. He embarks on a rigorous training regimen that includes running up hills, running in the rain, and running in the snow.

Butcher is a frail-looking whip of a boy, and the sight of him hustling while sopping wet seems vaguely like a Dickensian physical challenge. But his preparation is a blessing for the movie, saving it from an unfortunate resemblance to ''Rushmore."

Ralph is an academically underachieving, sex-crazed smart aleck, who's a hair too precious and on the verge of expulsion, not unlike Max Fischer in Wes Anderson's 1998 movie. McGowan seems to have arranged his shots to match some in Anderson's movie (one on a set of bleachers comes to mind), and the score, by Andrew Lockington, evokes the jaunty music Mark Mothersbaugh wrote for ''Rushmore."

The Anderson itch must have been a put-on, since once Ralph commits himself to his mother and the marathon, all the film's self-styled quirks evaporate. Ralph receives coaching from his religion teacher (Campbell Scott), spiritual guidance from his crush (Shauna McDonald), and miscellaneous assistance from his mother's hospital nurse, played by Jennifer Tilly. Soon, the town of Hamilton has quietly rallied around him in his quest to make it to Boston.

In redirecting the movie's personality, McGowan shifts ''Saint Ralph" from self-conscious to corny. The version of Leonard Cohen's ''Hallelujah" belted out by Gord Downie, the frontman for the Canadian rock band the Tragically Hip, succeeds at being both. But as predictably uplifting movies go, ''Saint Ralph" isn't completely charmless. Take the advice Ralph gets from his best friend, Chester (Michael Kanev), who, after disaster strikes, urges Ralph to press on. ''You just burned your house down. The least you could do is win Boston." Amen.

Wesley Morris can be reached at wmorris@globe.com.

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