Michael Dunn (Andrew McCarthy) is a teenager in the Brooklyn of 1965, and he has had to transfer schools because he is now living with his grandparents and his sister. His grandmother (Kate Reid) has high hopes that he will join the priesthood, but he is not convinced he wants to, and when his new school is St. Basil's, little wonder. He first meets with the head of the establishment, Brother Thadeus (Donald Sutherland), who bamboozles him with his rules, and quickly learns how strict the place is, most notably when he joins his new class which is under the tutelage of Brother Constance (Jay Patterson), not a man averse to using violence to keep the students in line, such is the harshness of the Catholic regime...
Heaven Help Us was also known as Catholic Boys in some territories, all the better for the potential audience to identify what they could let themselves in for. It was a film that took both an insider's and outsider's view to its subject in that it was obviously penned (by Charles Pupura, whose sole other script was for earlyJulia Roberts vehicle Satisfaction) by somebody who knew what they were talking about, but was not immune to taking a critical examination of the Catholic school system as if he were looking in and being confounded by its practices. Some of this was comical, at other times it was deadly serious, but in every scene the sense of being told an account very much connected to personal experience was apparent.
With Michael, Andrew McCarthy probably received his best leading role (sorry, Weekend at Bernie's fans), a young man with a foot in two camps, one the hardline religious teaching imposed on him in a manner he is starting to realise is against his will, the other with the lapsed or even non-Catholics who do not need to go through these rules and regulations as a method of making pious citizens under their idea of God. If this faltered a little, it was down to the lack of awareness that Catholicism was far from the only faith that had its dedication to various tenets which would restrict the personal happiness of its adherents, a conservatism that contained a surprising amount in common with fundamentalism across the globe.
You would not find that in the sole Protestant character of note, though she comes across as a bit of a waif; Danni (Mary Stuart Masterson) basically runs the diner the schoolboys and girls of the other school use to get away from it all, to smoke it would seem, for her father is in a bad way and she is his carer. She barely mentions her religion, and it is this not fitting in within this neighbourhood that attracts Michael, with grandmother smug in the knowledge that their relationship will amount to nothing if he is to join an order. Constance represented that aggressively nasty side to religion, and our hero must learn to rebel against him in particular if he is to achieve any kind of contentment, but there was a feeling the harshest monk was merely parroting what he has been taught by an overwhelming and misguided at best, corrupt at worst, organisation.
We see these boys punished time and again, and the screenplay made a good fist of portraying confession as especially weird and damaging to a young soul, that idea that God is all-knowing and more or less all-disdainful into the bargain being the source of a lifetime of misplaced guilt for billions. As Michael and his new friends, who in truth do not often act with a lot of friendliness, buckle under this we begin to anticipate that someone is going to break, though it may not have been who you expected as there was worth mentioning the key supporting character Brother Timothy (John Heard). He is there to illustrate that the Church is not all barely contained tyrants whose religion has made them somewhere close to insane, and that there is the possibility of a loosening of restrictions, even - gasp! - a liberalism available that would treat the faithful with kindness rather than savage suspicion. How accurate this was in 1965, or twenty years later, was up for debate, but it ended the film on a note of optimism. More complex than the usual teen movie, food for thought amidst the expected crude humour. Music by James Horner.