In its hundred minute run time, Heaven Help Us does a number of things well. It’s beautifully edited, photographed, directed, acted. Charles Purpura’s screenplay offers a number of fantastic scenes, which director Dinner does a great job with. Overall, however, the screenplay is where there’s a significant problem. The film doesn’t have an ending and its lack of an ending just draws attention to the (easily overlooked) previous plotting deficiencies.
The film is so beautifully constructed in the first act, it gets by on that narrative goodwill and the performances all the way until the finale. Andrew McCarthy is the ostensible lead, the new kid at a Catholic high school in 1965 Brooklyn. His parents have died, he’s living with his sympathetic but awkward grandparents and his understandably upset little sister (Jennifer Dundas). He meets all the kids at school, then he meets a girl (Mary Stuart Masterson). They have a wonderfully dreary teen romance. Masterson is phenomenal, McCarthy is good.
Except it’s like Dinner realized McCarthy was too passive, so he gives Kevin Dillon a lot to do as the lovable bully. Dillon has all the Catholic school shenanigans (bullying, talking back to the priests, confession consulting, trying to corrupt a girl). Dinner and photographer Miroslav Ondríce give the school location enough personality the occasional diversions are all right. But, narratively speaking, Heaven Help Us points at Chekov’s gun only to reveal Greedo shoots first–it’s unclear if the film is hurrying to wrap up or if they just didn’t know what else to do with it.
Because part of the film’s charm is its scope. Dinner and Ondríce do a lot with a limited number of locations, a limited number of angles. They recreate 1965 Brooklyn through intelligent framing, with Stephen A. Rotter’s editing implying a lot of the rest. Rotter’s editing is excellent throughout the film, from the very first sequence.
The film isn’t happy. It’s often funny–there are the hijinks after all and McCarthy and John Heard (as the new priest at the school, which seems like a great narrative device but just gets lost) are great at deadpan–but it’s sad. There’s a weight to it all. Heaven Help Us isn’t just about McCarthy and Dillon finding themselves (they don’t even have to do it themselves–the abrupt deus ex machina takes care of their problems), it really is about Catholic high school. It’s about Heard’s relationship with the headmaster (Donald Sutherland in a fun performance) and the other teachers (specifically an outstanding Jay Patterson as a vicious, cruel one). It’s about the boys growing up in this environment. Dinner takes it very seriously.
Except he’s got too much, because he’s supposed to be making this movie about Andrew McCarthy and Mary Stuart Masterson (who actually has the best story in the film). Instead, he wants to make one about pro-hippie priest John Heard bucking the system. But then he goes ahead and makes one about Dillon.
It’s a mess, but a successful one. Until the third act, all of Dinner and Purpura’s tangential moments work out, like Wallace Shawn’s hilarious monologue on lust.
Heaven Help Us is a fine film, but Dinner had all the pieces–Masterson, McCarthy, Heard, Ondrícek, Rotter, composer James Horner–to make a truly excellent one.
Directed by Michael Dinner; written by Charles Purpura; director of photography, Miroslav Ondrícek; edited by Stephen A. Rotter; music by James Horner; production designer, Michael Molly; produced by Dan Wigutow and Mark Carliner; released by Tri-Star Pictures.
Starring Andrew McCarthy (Michael Dunn), Mary Stuart Masterson (Danni), Kevin Dillon (Rooney), Donald Sutherland (Brother Thadeus), John Heard (Brother Timothy), Jay Patterson (Brother Constance), Malcolm Danare (Caesar), Stephen Geoffreys (Williams), Christopher Durang (Priest), Dana Barron (Janine), Yeardley Smith (Cathleen), Jennifer Dundas (Boo), Kate Reid (Grandma) and Wallace Shawn (Father Abruzzi).