Heaven Help Us (1985) – A Review
“You can’t tell him you lied to your father he’ll make you go back and apologize to him. Then he’ll break your god damn legs. Tell him it was a bus driver you lied to, you know someone you’re never going to see again.”
“And what’s this huh? You stole twenty-two times? What the fuck are you a god damn Jesse James? What’d you steal? He’s gonna want to know. Then he’s going to tell you to bring it all back. Here, change this twenty-two to two and tell him it was some food or something.”
“What if he wants me to bring that back?”
“What? The crap?”
It’s 1965 and a new student arrives at Saint Basil’s all-boys Catholic High School in Brooklyn, New York. Michael Dunn (Andrew McCarthy) has some heavy expectations heaped onto him by his grandparents. They want to see him become a priest, maybe even one day even become Pope, and think his time at Saint Basil’s will be the perfect place to groom him for a life wearing a white collar
However, Michael is not too keen with the idea of a life in the cloth and Saint Basil’s doesn’t really do much to inspire him. There are some very strict rules to follow and the Brothers take enforcing them very seriously at their beloved school. Yet that doesn’t stop a ragtag bunch of students with trying to get away with as much ‘boys will be boys’ antics as possible.
Between adventures at Saint Basil’s, Michael meets Danni (Mary Stuart Masterson) a high school dropout who works at the local soda shop who he immediately gets smitten with. Where will Michael see his future lie – with the priesthood or with Danni?
Heaven Help Us (also known as Catholic Boys) is one of those 1980s teen movies that has kind of fallen in the cracks of time. It doesn’t seem to be very well known and I rarely see it mentioned on lists of teen comedies from the decade.
It has some recognizable actors in it, but they weren’t the biggest compared to the more popular and beloved 80s stars during the period. It doesn’t have any really outrageous comedic scenes that one would expect to find in the genre. It may have been marketed as another teen/sex comedy, but by comparison to its comrades Heaven Help Us is almost quaint.
Like Porky’s and Mischief, the film is another one of those sub-genre entries in the 80s teen/sex comedies of being a period film. It’s set in the past, long before big hair, tight shiny clothes and Devo became staples of adolescence. So it doesn’t have all those definitive stamps that mark most of the movies in the genre from the 1980s.
Here the story is set in the mid-60s, so it naturally tries to bask you in the time period with the cars, the music and the lifestyle of being at this all-boys Catholic school in Brooklyn.
And it does sell the period pretty well. The characters are all forced to wear their school uniforms, so other than their haircuts and the setting of an old generic school it would seem pretty easy to sell the time period. The priests and nuns kind of wear timeless garments anyway.
Michael arrives at Saint Basil’s and quickly meets Rooney (Kevin Dillon), the big loudmouth, troublemaker in the halls and the studious Caesar (Malcolm Danare), the target of most of the abuse at St. Basils. After pulling some pranks, breaking some rules and receiving some holy punishment by the sinister Brother Constance (Jay Patterson), the three of them form something of a friendship, along with the masterbating-obsessed Williams (Stephen Geoffreys) and the meek Corbet (Patrick Dempsey in his film debut).
From there the five experience all the joys of Catholic school life including a dance. the act of confession, a papal visit and getting to unwind at the local soda shop, where they still have to try to avoid the Brothers vigilant gaze.
Michael meets newly arrived Brother Timothy (John Heard), who has a very relaxed and easygoing attitude and offers Michael up some much needed advice. Brother Timothy is the polar opposite from the feared Brother Constance.
The minute you meet Brother Constance you know this guy means business. He’s so sadistic and ruthless with his punishment it doesn’t seem like he’s ever looked at a Bible let alone is supposed to be practicing its teachings. He’s a real easy character to hate.
A memorable pre-dance speech is given by Wallace Shawn to the young boys and girls about the dangers of lust. It’s a funny scene as he basically takes the fun away for any of the young students who will now finally get to spend time with the opposite sex. I’m sure the scene is a bit exaggerated for comic effect, but I suspect not by too much. Those who went to Catholic school during the mid-60s can verify this though.
Heaven Help Us is not exactly a laugh out loud comedy. There are funny moments, particularly thanks to Rooney and Caesar. Dillon is especially funny. Naturally, there’s the clumsy predicaments of the boys trying to get the girls, but if you’re expecting riotous, rowdy scenes you might be disappointed by what happens.
I’m not saying the scenes are not entertaining, but they are much more low-key in comparison of what other teen/sex comedies were up to at the time.
The film bounces from funny adventures and interactions with our heroes to the drama they have to endure at the school. In fact you may be surprised how much of the film is not played for laughs. The boys encounters with Brother Constance and the consequences they face from him aren’t exactly knee slappers.
They’re actually pretty intense and real. Along with Michael and Danni’s love story and the hardships that life has dealt them, Heaven Help Us may disappoint some viewers hoping for a real wild time at Saint Basil’s.
Also if you’re hoping for a lot of nudity with the boys sneaking over to the girls school to peep through windows you’re going to be letdown. The closest the film comes to nudity is seeing a girl in a bra.
There are some very funny scenes. One I always enjoyed is the the papal visit. This is a historic moment with millions lining the parade route to see the Holy Father – a real life event that took place in 1965. The first time a Pope visited the U.S. Our heroes don’t find much interest in that and decide to sneak away and catch a movie instead. The cutaway from the excitement of all the people seeing the Pope and cheering to our guys hanging out watching Blue Hawaii has always made me laugh.
I’ve also always liked the scene of the boys lined up for confession doctoring their lists of what they’re going to confess to the priest. I remember at a young age doing a similar thing when I was first made to go to confession.
The ending of the movie always felt somewhat abrupt to me. We get a conclusion of the boys time at Saint Basil’s and finally some comeuppance for Brother Constance, but I always thought the film should have continued for another few minutes to give us an ending to Michael and Danni’s story. We find out what became of them – along with all the other characters – with a voiceover by Dillon, but it always felt tacked on and not very satisfying.
Overall, it’s not a bad flick. The cast is all good. McCarthy is a likable guy, although I always thought he was a bit bland as a lead. Masterson is as cute as ever. Geoffreys gets another scene stealing character to play, alongside his role in Fright Night. Those two flicks are really the only two I know him from, after which I never really saw him again.
Donald Sutherland brings a dignified authority to his small role as Brother Thadeus. His permed hair always looked strange to me though. And all the supporting cast, especially the Brothers do very well with their small parts and scenes their in.
Dillon is the real standout though. Rewatching it again and seeing how entertaining he is in the film I’m surprised he didn’t go on to playing bigger parts right after Heaven Help Us. People still thought of him as Matt Dillon’s little brother and just wasn’t able to get out of his shadow yet. It wasn’t until playing Johnny Drama in Entourage where he got something that allowed him to really shine again.