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The Dangerous Lives of Altar Boys (2002)


I’ll forego my opportunity to cleverly riff on the film’s title, as I’m sure many will have a field day doing in light of current world events. Director Peter Care’s (best known for his work on music videos and commercials) debut feature The Dangerous Lives of Altar Boys, based on the 1994 novel by late author Chris Fuhrman, is a film about children made primarily for an adult audience. It’s a thoughtful meditation on the thrills and difficulties that come with being a fourteen year old in a world where every older, authority figure seems to be oppressive, apathetic, or both. Combine Care’s compassion for his characters and methodical pacing with a number of crazed, Todd McFarlane-created animated sequences, and what results is a unique telling of a structurally traditional, coming-of-age story.

Set in the 1970’s, Francis (Emile Hirsch) and Tim (Kieran Culkin) are two irreverent, trouble-making friends who attend the same Catholic high school. Their archenemy is Sister Assumpta (Jodie Foster), an immensely strict nun, who rules the school with an iron fist. Seeking a more even playing field, Tim and the artistically gifted Francis, with the help of a few friends, create a comic book where their superhero alter egos do battle with the evil forces of Sister Assumpta.

Francis also finds himself in the clutches of his first relationship, when he becomes romantically involved with a fellow classmate, the reclusive Margie (Jena Malone). Aside from the sudden addition of a third wheel threatening Francis and Tim’s friendship, Margie also harbors and later reveals a dark secret, which adds to Francis’ mounting confusion. When Sister Assumpta strikes with an especially serious blow to the routine of the boys’ lives, they rally around their shared animosity for the woman and engage in an impossibly dangerous revenge mission.

The film genuinely captures the tumult of attempting to make sense of life in early teen years. As rebellious and confrontational as Francis and Tim may be, they also desperately seek to ask questions in an environment where guidance is practically non-existent. As the focal point of the movie, Emile Hirsch is superlative as Francis. He hits the full range of his character’s emotions, and gives you a protagonist who is easy to identify with. Kieran Culkin’s performance, at times, feels forced, but his character is the most difficult to grasp, and thus his role appears to be the hardest one to pull off convincingly. Jena Malone, more or less, played this same character in last year’s Donnie Darko, and she’s just as effective this time around. As for the film’s two stars, Jodie Foster is adequate as rigid Sister Assumpta, but Vincent D’Onofrio is basically in sleepwalk mode as Father Casey, the less austere academic authoritarian.

McFarlane’s animation, which depicts the stories told in Francis and Tim’s comic book, provides a nice jolt to the proceedings, especially when the pace begins to slow midway through the film. Although Francis and Margie’s relationship is involving, it also unfolds in a very labored manner. Care would’ve been better served streamlining this aspect of the story, but he sprinkles in enough comic moments throughout to mostly keep the film as entertaining as it is provocative.

The Dangerous Lives of Altar Boys is able to evoke emotions without painstakingly going out of its way to do so. It’s the type of film about growing up that we don’t see often enough these days: realistic, urgent, and not sugarcoated in the least.

DVD includes about 5 minutes of alternate and/or deleted scenes and a couple of featurettes about the making of the film. Todd McFarlane offers a commentary to all of the animated scenes as well.

Danger at the curb.