‘Heaven Help Us’ Is a Teen Comedy With Far More Than (Just) Sex On Its Mind
“If God had wanted them to be angels He would have given them wings.”
Welcome to Missed Connections, a weekly column where I get to highlight films that are little known and/or unfairly maligned. I’ll be shining a light in two directions – I hope to introduce you to movies you’ve never seen and possibly never heard of, and I’ll attempt to defend films that history, critical consensus, and maybe even your own memories haven’t been very kind to.
This week’s movie is a teenage romp from the ’80s with a dirty mouth, a heavy heart, and a bitter nostalgia for a “simpler” time.
Hi. My name’s Rob, and I’m a recovering Catholic. I survived thirteen years of Catholic school – kindergarten through high school – and while it’s left me with a distrust of organized religion and authority it’s also left me oddly nostalgic for the strictly structured world. I don’t miss it, and I definitely don’t want to return to its labyrinthine rules, empty explanations, and casual cruelties – and I still claim my tripping of Sister Hermina in first grade was an accident – but I’m drawn to movies that recreate the experience in order to tell a story. Typically that leaves me watching horror movies about strict religious environments, psychotic kids, and naughty nuns, but once in a while something different comes along.
1985’s Heaven Help Us is something different.
Set in 1965 Brooklyn, the film introduces us to Michael (Andrew McCarthy), a new arrival at St. Basil’s Prep School for boys. He’s greeted by the stern but casually so headmaster, Brother Thadeus (Donald Sutherland), before being loosed into the school. It’s a sea of similarly-uniformed teenage boys, but Michael soon falls in with a quartet of wayward classmates.
Rooney (Kevin Dillon) is the loudmouth and de facto leader of the group. He’s crude and crass – his standard insult for everyone is “faggot” whether they’re a boy, girl, or teacher – and as with most bully types he craves attention and affirmation. Dillon plays a great prick in that he’s an undeniably jerk while remaining someone you can see yourself hanging out with for both laughs and the opportunity to see him put in his place. The film offers plenty of opportunities for that including a post-dance scene where he tries to get a girl (Dana Barron) drunk for sex only to have her puke on his neck and lap. Williams (Stephen Geoffreys) is a single-minded and highly focused young man, but that focus is on his near constant state of masturbation. His obsession with sex leads to one of the film’s many great scenes as he serves as altar boy during communion – to a church filled with high-school girls. It’s a frenzied delight, and Geoffreys’ tortured facial expressions are their own kind of joy.
Corbet (Patrick Dempsey) is a mostly quiet one, while Caesar (Malcolm Danare) believes himself to be above the others due to his superior intellect. That attitude, as well as his glasses and larger frame, sees him targeted for Rooney’s harassment on a regular basis, but it’s never enough for Caesar to give up on these friends he’s settled for.
The adults are an equally odd bunch with Brother Timothy (John Heard) being a new arrival to the St. Basil’s just like Michael. He’s the “cool” teacher who stands apart from the rest and seems destined not to last very long in this environment, and Brother Constance (Jay Patterson) is his polar opposite. Rough, abusive, and visibly cruel in his service of the Lord, Constance is a firm believer in humiliation and corporal punishment as methods for keeping the youth in line. We also get a brief appearance from Father Abruzzi (Wallace Shawn) whose pre-dance speech includes a spittle-filled warning about the dangers of lust and the beasts within all teenagers.
Heaven Help Us was marketed as just another teen sex comedy – just take a look at the trailer below – but while it features some dirty talk and impure intentions it’s actually far more than “just” anything. Michael’s arrival at the new school comes as he and his younger sister, Boo (Jennifer Dundas), have been shipped here to live with their grandparents. There’s a resigned sadness to his character due as much to this new situation as to his awareness that despite his grandmother’s wishes he will most likely not be entering the priesthood.
It’s in this funk though where he makes his mark and finds someone to love. He accomplishes the former by being a stand-up guy at school who stands his ground under pressure and refuses to snitch on his classmates. He finds love though in the girl across the street. Danni (Mary Stuart Masterson) works at a soda shop near the school where the kids hang out to smoke, canoodle, and talk smack. She runs the place while hiding the fact that her father is emotionally ill and unable to function, and while she’s never given the other boys the time of day she and Michael bond in their isolation and troubles.
Their relationship offers a sweet respite from his hijinks with the boys, but it comes with a cost. As he’s falling in love the school’s religiously-minded faculty is making plans to shut the place down as both a nuisance and an issue of social welfare seeing as Danni is a minor with an incapacitated father and is no longer attending school. It leads to heartbreak, tragedy, and one more loss for Michael, and that’s one loss too many.
The script sets the stage for what’s to come, but it’s McCarthy’s beautifully pained performance that sells it. (Well, that and my own desire to have punched a teacher or two back in my day.) There’s an intensity in his eyes fueled equally and alternately by rage and sadness, and that unlikely humanity he brings to the film becomes its immensely affecting heart.
Heaven Help Us is a funny, bittersweet movie that deserves the same level of recognition and fondness as any number of better-remembered ’80s comedies. There are big laughs here and an even bigger heart. Sure it’s a teen sex comedy where the only nude scene is one featuring swimsuit-free boys at swim class, but look, there’s Larry ‘Bud’ Melman laughing hysterically at nothing! (The David Letterman fans will enjoy that at least.) Seriously though, give this one a shot. It’s what Jesus would do.
Read more entries in last year’s The Essentials, and follow along every Monday with Missed Connections — my appreciations of movies that failed to find an audience for one reason or another.
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