“We all come to the order, full of ideas… and we often find that we have much to learn ourselves. Nevertheless, authority must never be undermined by the display of dissent among the faculty.”
Heaven Help Us!, 1985 (Andrew McCarthy) TriStar Pictures
Catholic school, Brooklyn 1965. Donald Sutherland’s Brother Thadeus runs St. Basil’s like a Marine barracks, insisting on proper calls, salutations, and responses. He sizes up new transfer Michael Dunn (Andrew McCarthy) pretty quickly, ensuring a semester of misery to be had by all. The kids are no different than kids in any school except that they’re required to wear uniforms and study religion. I went to Catholic school for a time, but I don’t remember it being as strict as what we see in Heaven Help Us! St. Basil’s is like a military academy or a reform school, and the behavior of the teachers (in particular Brother Constance) is violent and abusive.
Caesar (Malcolm Danare), caught chewing gum in class, is forced to wear the gum on the tip of his nose for the remainder of the day while another is compelled to eat his incomplete homework. Dunn befriends Caesar who tells him he wants to go to an Ivy League school and become a psychologist when he grows up. We’re introduced to Dunn’s eccentric family in short order. He and his sister, Boo (Jennifer Dundas), orphaned after the death of their parents, have moved in with the grandparents in Brooklyn. Local bully Rooney (Kevin Dillon) takes an immediate dislike to McCarthy; I mean, it isn’t hard to hate McCarthy, but this is ridiculous.
As in Class, he (and his friend) are the subject of a campaign of harassments until McCarthy refuses to rat out Rooney for destroying Caesar’s desk, which results in all three being punished. Brother Timothy (John Heard) tries to apprise Brother Thadeus of the situation, but he gets nowhere as Thadeus respects Brother Constance’s tactics. Meanwhile, the malt shop, run by Mary Stuart Masterson, is the subject of constant raids by the Brothers in an effort to catch the kids engaging in illicit activity. The movie is like a prolonged war between the faculty and the kids.
At confession (in one of the funnier scenes) Dillon advises Williams (Stephen Geoffreys – AGAIN!) to reduce the number of his frequent occasions of masturbation by dividing the number of his lustful thoughts into his impure acts, reducing the number substantially. See, that’s clever! Dillon’s performance recalls his brother Matt’s turn in There’s Something About Mary. He’s an idiot that doesn’t know he’s an idiot. He gets his girl, Janine (Dana Barron) drunk on Jack Daniels and she promptly throws up on him when he tries to remove her bra.
Williams relishes the opportunity to be an altar boy during communion so he can gawk at all the girls on their knees with their open mouths. He finally passes out from the sheer excitement. Amidst all the mid-’60s ambiance, sexual repression, and fantasy, some serious themes are at play. Mary is revealed to be taking care of her father (in addition to the malt shop) because he suffers from deep depression stemming from her mother’s death. McCarthy doesn’t know what he wants to do with his life, even as his grandparents insist he becomes a priest.
Mary locks the Brothers out of the shop before they can start another raid, so the school retaliates by having her father remanded to a hospital and putting her (because she’s under-age) into foster care. When Constance’s violent nature is finally revealed, he is removed from the school and never again permitted to work with children. I even found myself cheering for McCarthy when he decks Constance in the middle of the assembly. Heaven Help Us! is an interesting dissection of a different time, a more brutal time but with the same kinds of kids we all know. Also, look for Larry “Bud” Melman’s cameo as a bridge operator!