Heaven Help Us

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Heaven Help Us
Heaven help us.jpg
Theatrical release poster
Directed byMichael Dinner
Written byCharles Purpura
Produced byMark Carliner
Dan Wigutow
CinematographyMiroslav Ondříček
Edited byStephen A. Rotter
Music byJames Horner
Distributed byTri-Star Pictures
Release date
  • February 8, 1985 (1985-02-08)
Running time
104 minutes
CountryUnited States
Box officeTheatrical:
$6,070,794 (USA)[citation needed]
$2,700,000 (USA)[citation needed]

Heaven Help Us (also known as Catholic Boys) is a 1985 American drama film starring Andrew McCarthy, Mary Stuart Masterson, Kevin Dillon, Malcolm Danare, Patrick Dempsey, and Stephen Geoffreys as a group of 1960s Brooklyn teenagers, with Jay Patterson, Wallace Shawn, John Heard and Donald Sutherland as the teachers and administrators at the private Catholic school the boys attend.


In 1965, Boston teenager Michael Dunn (Andrew McCarthy) and his young sister Boo (Jennifer Dundas) have been sent to Brooklyn to live with their Irish-Catholic grandparents following the deaths of their parents. Michael Dunn is enrolled at St. Basil's, a strict all-boys Roman Catholic school. His grandmother is determined to see him fulfill his parents' dream of him joining the priesthood. Dunn befriends Caesar (Malcolm Danare), a heavy, bespectacled student who enjoys reading. Caesar helps Dunn catch up with the rest of the class, but because of their association, foul-mouthed bully and underachiever Ed Rooney (Kevin Dillon) pranks Dunn outside of the soda fountain across the street from school.

After Rooney pulls a prank on Caesar, a teacher, Brother Constance (Jay Patterson), attempts to get Dunn to identify the prankster by striking Dunn's open palms with a paddle. Fed up with Dunn's refusal to rat out the perpetrator, Constance shoves him to the floor. Dunn lunges towards Rooney and the pair are separated. Dunn and Rooney are sent to the office of the headmaster, Brother Thadeus (Donald Sutherland). Rooney, impressed by Dunn's refusal to snitch, attempts to patch things up between them, but Dunn wants nothing to do with him. After school, Rooney tells Dunn that if they do not become friends, he will have to continue in his harassment in order to save face. Reluctantly, Dunn befriends Rooney and his friends Williams (Stephen Geoffreys) and Corbett (Patrick Dempsey).

Dunn also befriends Danni (Mary Stuart Masterson), a teenaged girl who runs the soda fountain across from the school and cares for her mentally infirm father (Jimmy Ray Weeks). Danni's fountain shop is raided numerous times by the Brothers, who wish to catch St. Basil's students misbehaving. The raids leave the shop in a shambles. After one raid, Dunn helps Danni clean things up, sparking a romance.

At the sacrament of confession, Caesar enters the confessional, but Father Abruzzi (Wallace Shawn) becomes preoccupied with another student's misbehavior. Rooney enters the priest's booth and hears Caesar's confession, giving him the penance of befriending Rooney and making sure he gets passing grades. As a result, Caesar tutors and befriends Rooney.

The relationship between Dunn and Danni further develops, culminating in a passionate kiss under the Boardwalk. One day, during one of the Brothers' routine raids, Danni takes a stand and locks them out. The Brothers leave, but later contact social services. A few days later, Dunn and his friends see police cars and a few of the Brothers surrounding the soda fountain door as Danni's father is led out in handcuffs. Dunn rushes in and finds that social workers are preparing to take Danni away. A shaken Dunn takes Danni in his arms. Weeping, she wants him to promise that he won't be sad over her departure.

An angry Rooney develops another prank with the help of Caesar, Williams and Corbett. The boys sneak onto school grounds and decapitate the statue of St. Basil. During an assembly the next day, Rooney presents Dunn with a duffel bag containing the missing head. Brother Constance shows up, knowing that he has found the vandals. The boys are taken into the gym, where Constance hits Corbett and Williams with a leather strap in an attempt to extract a confession. Caesar presents Constance with a doctor's note, presumably to exempt him from corporal punishment. Constance drags the cowering Caesar to the floor, beating him with the strap. Dunn shoves Constance to the floor and then flees, with the Brother and the other boys following him. The chase ends in the auditorium during the assembly. Constance backhands Dunn and calls him a bastard. Dunn delivers an uppercut to Constance, knocking him to the floor and causing pandemonium as the student body rises to its feet and cheers.

Thadeus suspends all five boys for two weeks. He then presents Constance, who he says started the altercation, with an order that he be transferred to another assignment where he will not work with children. The five boys walk out of the school downtrodden, but then joyfully realize that they will not have to attend school for two weeks.




The story was originally written in 1978 as a masters thesis by Charles Purpura, a student at NYU, who had attended Catholic boys' schools. An NYU teacher showed the script, first called Catholic Boys, to producer Dan Wigutow, who tried unsuccessfully to interest production companies in it. Purpura dropped out of NYU and was fired from his job at a lithography shop for union organizing. He was denied unemployment benefits because his nighttime screenwriting was considered potentially lucrative employment, so he filed for bankruptcy, borrowed money and headed for India.[1][2]

The script was read by producer Mark Carliner, who wanted to finance further work on it. Wigutow had to contact Purpura in India via telegram. The writer began doing further drafts.[2]

Carliner then met Michael Dinner, a former recording artist who had just made a film at the American Film Institute, a version of Nathaniel West's Miss Lonelyhearts which had aired on American Playhouse. Carliner gave Dinner $10,000 to enable him to travel with Miss Lonelyhearts to the Cannes Film Festival, figuring it was "bread cast upon the water".[2] Dinner became attached to direct Catholic Boys.

On the plane to Cannes, Dinner met Maurice Singer, chief of the new theatrical film division of Home Box Office. By the time the plane landed in Europe, Singer had agreed to finance Catholic Boys. Tri-Star came on to distribute.[2]

Dinner said "When you're a new director you hear from a lot of people that you're a genius but it doesn't mean very much. I was happy to be getting any firm assignment."[3]


Dinner said "I came into this very idealistically, wanting to discover eight brand new faces who could play 16 and 17 year olds. But it didn't work out that way."[3]

He spent four months looking for actors around the country, including Boston and Philadelphia, but ended up casting them all out of New York via their agents. "What happens here is that you stumble on kids with some stage experience who also seem natural as New York kids. What happens in Los Angeles is that even the good ones come off like Valley kids."[3]

Mary Stuart Masterson was cast after Michael Dinner saw a tape she had made at the Sundance Institute, where Masterson had spent two summers in an acting company. The film was in production when she was cast and Masterson would rehearse on weekends with Dinner and McCarthy.[4]


Filming took nine weeks.[3]

The Church of St. Michael (built 1921) and the (now closed) St. Michael's Parish School were used as the fictional St. Basil's Church and St. Basil's School, run by the factual Order of St. Basil. Filming used external and internal shots of this church and school, and around the neighborhood. An auditorium scene was filmed using students from Cardinal Spellman High School in the Bronx.

John Heard later claimed an incident on the film led to him being unofficially blacklisted for a time.

One afternoon when I was sitting there talking to another actor. I think it was Jay Patterson or somebody. I’m a Catholic, and I still hang around with guys I went to high school with... I leaned over and I said, “I don’t understand: Why in the world would they get a Jew to direct a Catholic boys movie?” And the director—Michael Dinner... —was sitting right behind me. [Laughs.] And then it turned out that I’m part Jewish! My grandfather was Jewish. I mean, it may have sounded like I was being anti-Semitic, but I was really just sort of being... Catholic boys are kind of vain. They think of themselves of being unique, so why would we want to be directed by a Jewish person? But I probably didn’t work again after that for two years or something.[5]


The film was originally shot as Catholic Boys but the title was changed to Heaven Help Us because HBO and Tri Star were afraid the original title might alienate some viewers.[2]

To make the film more upbeat, there were changes made to a plot involving a disenchanted teacher, and the addition of a spoken epilogue.[6]


The film received mixed reviews and was not a commercial success. McCarthy later called it "a very lovely movie that twelve people saw"[7] and described it as "my favorite and/or the best movie I did in that whole era of those movies."[8]

It was thought the marketing may have misled audiences about the film, indicating it was more of a typical teen film. "I'm a first-time director, and all I can do is stamp my foot, so to speak," said Michael Dinner. "Besides, in terms of offending anyone, I'm more worried about Elvis fans." (The film contains an unflattering excerpt from Blue Hawaii.)[6]

Filmink called it "part of Andrew McCarthy’s “soulful teens” trilogy (along with Pretty in Pink and Class)."[9]


  1. ^ Film Clips: Getting Through 'OZ' with Help of his Friends Film Clips: A Little Help Mathews, Jack. Los Angeles Times June 21, 1985: f1.
  2. ^ a b c d e MGM/UA: TWO GUYS WORKING OUT A SCRIPT: London, Michael. Los Angeles Times February 8, 1985: 1.
  3. ^ a b c d DIRECTOR DINNER'S FIRST FEATURE: THE 'UNKNOWNS' ELEMENT IN 'BOYS' Taylor, Clarke. Los Angeles Times June 19, 1984: sd_d3.
  4. ^ THE ECHOES OF TEEN-AGE FILM STARS: [Home Edition] Champlin, Charles. Los Angeles Times February 28, 1985: 4.
  5. ^ "John Heard on The Lizzie Borden Chronicles, The Sopranos, Sharknado, and more" By Will Harris Random Roles - AV Club Apr 4, 2015 accessed 6 April 2015
  6. ^ a b Hollywood keeping space stories down to earth Maslin, Janet. The Globe and Mail. February 16, 1985: E.6.
  7. ^ "Interview with Andrew McCarthy". CW Atlanta. July 26, 2016.
  8. ^ Ihnat, Gwen (May 8, 2017). "Andrew McCarthy on Weekend At Bernie's: "It's the stupidest movie. I love it."". AV Club.
  9. ^ Vagg, Stephen (March 28, 2020). "Top 10 Teen Films of the 1980s…". Filmink.

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