Sunday, January 11, 2009

Film #105: Heaven Help Us

In the spring of 1985, it was John Hughes' The Breakfast Club that captivated all the kids. Steeped in undying high school archetypes seen through a garish 80s lens, and alternating between malcontent trans-clique discourse and annoying over-statement (did Hughes really have to include a stoned Emilio Estevez yelling so loud he shatters glass?), The Breakfast Club sucked up millions at the box office and spawned a tenacious cult following (American Teen, the 2008 documentary, cunningly aped the film's concept and poster). But there was another movie released in the spring of '85 to which I've returned umpteen times more (actually, I've only seen the Hughes film once since then and, even though I somehow own a Breakfast Club poster signed by Molly Ringwald, Anthony Michael Hall and John Hughes, I think even less of the movie than I did as a disapproving college student).

Michael Dinner's Heaven Help Us, perhaps, didn't have a prayer at the box office because (a) it was about Catholic boy's school (which, I suppose, turned some kids off, and those Catholics who did see it probably hated--or maybe adored--its anti-Catholic bent), (b) it had a terrible ad campaign (The Breakfast Club has a much cooler poster), and (c) it was set in 1965, and absolutely no one with red leather zipper jackets, poofed-up hair, and Madonna-esque lace wanted to even think about '60s squares in black ties and school uniforms. But director Dinner (who later went on to nab an Emmy for helming one of his many Wonder Years episodes) concocted a film adorned with a funnier script (by Charles Pupura), a far more enticing ambiance, and a better cast. It's a cherished sleeper of the period.

The intense Andrew McCarthy (who would go on to a superior John Hughes effort called Pretty in Pink) plays Michael Dunn, an introverted new charge whose arrival at New York's St. Basil's Boys' Prep School shakes things up for the inmates already there. From the get-go, he's on the wrong side of the school's demanding headmaster Brother Thaddeus (Donald Sutherland) and in cahoots with St. Basil's bad-boy teacher Brother Timothy (John Heard, as always superb). His first friend is high-voiced fat boy Caesar (Malcolm Danare) and his first enemy is hammerheaded bully Rooney (Entourage star Kevin Dillon, then most notable for being Matt's little brother). It's to the movie's credit that it doesn't cleave too long to this set-up: Rooney actually turns out to be vexingly amusing, and Caesar soon smacks of the supercilious dork for whom you often feel pity but whom you also enjoy seeing get the shitstick once in a while. The episodic Heaven Help Us chronicles half a year in the lives of these three boys and two more hangers-on: masturbation addict Williams (wild-haired Stephen Geoffreys) and quiet Corbett (an early role for McDreamy himself, Patrick Dempsey). Plotting is thankfully eschewed and the movie largely becomes a collection of moments sweet, funny, and harrowing.

The sweetness largely hails from Dunn's female relationships: with his death-obsessed little sister (Jennie Dundas), and with Danni (Mary Stuart Masterson), the weary teenager who runs the local dive where Catholic kids listen to jukebox 45s and smoke forbidden cigarettes. Dunn's careful relationship with Danni obliterates her tough veneer, culminating in a gorgeous, though short-lived, love affair. Their first kiss, under a rainswept Coney Island boardwalk and scored with Otis Redding's "I've Been Loving You Too Long," is pure grace; we all wanna experience romantic moments like this at least once in our lives.

Right from the prankish opening credits, Dinner's film surely brings on the funny: horndog Williams rams into swooning ecstasy when, as an altar boy, he assists in communion for a visiting girl's school (the montage of pretty chicks sticking their tongues out to receive the body of Christ must have really needled devout Catholics); Caesar continually produces a doctor's note (which he eventually has laminated) to escape corporal punishment; Rooney is gratifyingly administered a nightmare night of teenage misadventure; and a memorable cameo is delivered by the lisping, always-reliable Wallace Shawn as an apoplectic brother who, as commencement to a high school dance, administers an astonishing harangue against pubescent lust.

Most surprisingly, Heaven Help Us becomes almost unbearable to watch in its cruelest moments. If the film has an all-out villain (besides the school itself), it's Jay Patterson, indelible as the sadistic Brother Constance, palpably absorbed in administering brutal humiliations to his students. Constance is a (perhaps) cliched character which Patterson slaps into life with his flared nostrils, thinning hair, and sniffing malevolence. When I first caught this movie in a half-full screening room, its raucous finale had everyone cheering with unbridled scorn for this self-righteous prick. With his roles here, in Places in the Heart (Robert Benton, 84) and Street Smart (Jerry Schatzberg, 87), Jay Patterson will always be, to me, one of the most maddening of movie assholes.
All of this is photographed with with a lovely overcast sheen by Czech cinematographer Miroslav Ondricek (If..., Ragtime, Amadeus, The World According to Garp), and scored mostly with Motown and Atlantic soul shots (I guess they couldn't afford the Beatles). Dinner's unassailable cast includes veteran character actors Philip Bosco and Kate Reid as well as debuting future stars Dillon, Dempsey and a young Yeardley Smith (whom you'll recognize as the provider of Lisa Simpson's unmistakable voice). Hell, it even has a cameo by Calvert De Forrest, better known to Late Night with David Letterman fanatics as Larry "Bud" Melman! With this, Heaven Help Us runs with the best teen movies of the last 30 years, joining a pack that includes Peter Yates' Breaking Away, Hughes' Pretty in Pink, Richard Linklater's Dazed and Confused, Greg Mottola's Superbad and Amy Heckerling's twin genre achievements Fast Times at Ridgemont High and Clueless. Like all of those films--and like teenagers themselves--Heaven Help Us is often crude, but often lovable, too.


Kotto said...

i loved this movie when i was a kid. props for bringing it back to my attention. have to admit though, i do have a soft spot for BC...even despite a few corny moments.

Dean Treadway said...

There are still moments I like very much in BREAKFAST CLUB, and I believe the performances are quite committed. I suppose I might have been a little harsh on it, but it does make me wince a lot of the way through, too. Still, there are worse movies. BUt I continue to maintain that PRETTY IN PINK, SIXTEEN CANDLES, and PIP's twin SOME KIND OF WONDERFUL are better teen movies.

Kotto said...

people will probably think i'm an idiot for saying so, but i believe anthony michael hall's performance in 16 candles is one of the best comedic performances of all time. sure, i'm probably exaggerating for effect...but still, he's pretty damn funny.

btw, don't forget about bueller - the crown jewel of teen movies. or is it fast times? hmm...we might be on to a meme here.

Dean Treadway said...

Of course, Bueller. I knew I was leaving a key film outta that list. Actually, that one's the one that's REALLY entered into the collective conciousness. One of these days, I'm gonna have to post the interviews I did with M. Broderick and the PRETTY IN PINK crew back in college. They're still interesting, particularly for fans.

Did you know that Stanley Kubrick almost cast Anthony Michael Hall as Private Joker in FULL METAL JACKET on the strength of his performance in SIXTEEN CANDLES? Kubrick thought it was one of the best comedic performances he'd ever seen. Hall IS great in that movie.

Kotto said...

wow, i had no idea kubrick shared my appreciation for AMH's performance -- maybe i'm not such an idiot after all! i'm actually a little surprised kubrick even saw sixteen candles.