Maybe I’m feeling nostalgic because I’m facing a birthday – my 55th! – tomorrow. Or maybe all the hoopla over the horny teens in Superbad has made me recall my own misspent youth. Whatever the reason, I’ve been thinking the past few days about a relatively minor film that had a major impact on me: Heaven Help Us, a 1985 comedy about growing up absurd – and, more important, Catholic – in the 1960s. As I wrote in my original review: “Speaking as the product -- some might say the victim -- of a Catholic elementary and high school education, I must say I found Heaven Help Us an uproariously funny and painfully accurate comedy. Mind you, one doesn’t have to be Catholic to enjoy the movie, which is set in and around a Brooklyn parochial school in 1965. But it helps to have the right background, to realize even those elements that seem most far-fetched are not so exaggerated at all.”
Insightfully written by the late Charles Purpura (whose only other feature credit of note is 1988’s less-than-noteworthy Satisfaction) and subtly directed by Michael Dinner (whose decidedly non-subtle Hot to Trot, a 1988 talking-horse comedy with Bobcat Goldthwait, remains a guilty pleasure of mine), Heaven Help Us features Andrew McCarthy (still flush with the fresh bloom of teen-fave stardom), Kevin Dillon (scarcely a year before his appearance in Platoon) and Malcolm Danare as three students at an all-boys Catholic high school (or, as we called them back in the day, “a parochial school”) in 1965 Brooklyn. I don’t think I’m spoiling any surprises to reveal that a generous portion of screen time is devoted to young lust and puppy love. (McCarthy’s character has a sweet romance with a candy-store clerk played by Mary Stuart Masterson, while Dillon’s character is… well, on the make for anything that moves.) But for me, the best parts of the movie are those that depict the day-to-day indignities and more-than-occasional terrors endemic to life as a Catholic school student of the era. I vividly remember seeing the movie on a Sunday, then going home and calling my best friend from high school to tell him about it. Only I really didn’t have to alert him: By the time I reached him, he’d already seen the movie – which had opened two days earlier –-three times. No kidding.
I don’t know whether contemporary teen-agers (or twentysomethings) would, after exposure to the free-wheeling raunch of the explosively funny Superbad, find the comparably restrained Heaven Help Us terribly amusing as entertainment, or even mildly interesting as an artifact (of the ‘80s and the ‘60s). Maybe, maybe not. Truth to tell, I strongly suspect it would seem as quaint yet remote to them as Depression Era musicals and screwball comedies sometimes seem to me. Nostalgia, like beauty, is in the eye of the beholder.
In any event, here's a scene from the movie for your perusal: