“Heaven Help Us” (1985)
When considering the curious slide in quality in the most popular film genres of the past, if there is a source of more continuously disappointing results than the American comedy, it is certainly that more odoriferous of sub-genres: the teen comedy. So imagine the odds of such an adolescently inspired opus managing an unexpected but precarious tightrope walk between the expected elements of lascivious gross out pranksterism (displaying a genuinely funny brand of comedy) and an unexpectedly touching subplot which manages to capture the hesitant vulnerabilities and insecurities of first love.
That “Heaven Help Us” also exists within the generally unsatisfying group of films which immerse themselves in the ripe but easy parodic target that is the piety of organized religion (herein identified, as is the case with most films of this sort which rely upon what is considered an easily mockable, as Catholicism), a subject often met with a crassly insultingly disrespectful and stereotypical exaggeration (despite the fertile indigenous possibilities which might nurture genuinely biting satire), “Heaven Help Us” expands upon its own modest achievement through an intelligent (and mature) compilation of the type of details which reveal substantive character depth in an unobtrusively unforced cumulative manner. In fact, despite the sometimes outlandish antics of the youths involved, even the most provocative actions feel completely organic to the characters within the limited context in which the film takes place. Thus rather than the humor feeling forced for the sake of randomly convenient insertions of typical adolescently randy humor, it emerges as natural reactive consequences of the the particulars of situation and the specifics of character. The film also manages to poke at the abuses of institutional religion without engaging in a callous devaluation of the spiritual value of faith, and it’s this resistance to an easy acquiescence toward pubescent coarseness that makes “Heaven Help Us” stand a cut above the average film of its kind.
Taking place in the autumnal days of American youth’s innocence in 1965, the film follows the experiences of transplanted Bostonian Michael Dunn (Andrew McCarthy) at Brooklyn’s St. Basil’s Academy for Boys, and his association with a quartet of fellow students who although initially seemingly light years apart in behavioral temperament seem to find a bonding common core with a like-minded resistance to the institutionalized authority under which the students find a constant test of their natural desire for expression of autonomous individuality. However, while rebelliousness is an expected aspect of the teen comedy, it is generally presented as a witless anarchism in the service of sexual prurience; characteristics of which are in trace attendance, but are intelligent modified with a far rarer inclusion of a more compelling formative aspect in regard to actively budding maturity: genuine growing pain- a legitimate and identifiable anxiety beneath the surface of the students’ anarchic spirit. It is this palpable undercurrent of teen angst which lifts the film above its more scatological infantile genre brethren, as the film is wise enough, without overt declarations, to identify the primary source of adolescent anxiety, not from the more casually asserted and excepted excuse of peer pressure, but from the influence of the inherent anxieties expressed by the adults surrounding them and to whom the youths are forcibly attentive enforced to influences irrelevant to whether or not that influence advances a nurturing stability. The film illustrates that this often critically damaging developmental smothering can be the result of both emotionally fractured familial settings and (in the case of St. Basil’s) institutional persecution, and it is to the credit of the surprisingly nuanced screenplay by Charles Purpura that the adult antagonists are treated with an equal sympathy and (with the exception of an extremely funny cautionary speech against Lust by Father Abruzzi (Wallace Shawn) preceding a school dance) never reduced to cartoon stereotypes. It is the reaction to the perception of the stifling of organically spontaneous expressiveness through relentless appeasement to the demands of the adult world which provides the film with its comic tension and its dramatic potency; most delicately balanced with grand gestures of humor, and without the embarrassing histrionics of more acclaimed portrayals of teen angst, such as the mawkish “Rebel Without a Cause”.
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