The Dangerous Lives of Altar Boys
2002, R, 105 min. Directed by Peter Care. Starring Kieran Culkin, Emile Hirsch, Jodie Foster, Jena Malone, Vincent D'Onofrio, Tyler Long.
REVIEWED By Steve Davis, Fri., June 21, 2002
The current scandal about sexual misconduct in the clergy may give the title of The Dangerous Lives of Altar Boys a whole new meaning, but the perils faced by the film's eighth-grade adolescents are the stuff that every nascent teenager experiences. The only difference between these boys growing up in the Seventies and their contemporaries is that they're entering puberty under the watchful eye of an institution determined to control their hearts and minds: the Catholic Church. Here, that institution is personified in the mirthless person of Sister Assumpta, the wooden-legged, motor scooter-riding mathematics teacher at Immaculate Conception who fears for the mortal souls of all her students, particularly best friends Tim Sullivan (Culkin) and Francis Doyle (Hirsch). (As played by Foster -- who also serves as one of the film's co-producers -- Sister Assumpta always appears as if she's just sucked on a lemon; it's unclear whether she's soured on the world, or the world has soured on her.) Along with a couple of other classmates, Tim and Francis spend most of their time hanging out, drinking beer, and sketching their comic-book alter egos, which they've christened the “Atomic Trinity,” despite the fact that they've createdfour -- not three -- superhero characters. Not surprisingly, the evil nemesis of this cartoon quartet is Nunzilla, a shadowy figure who rides a motorcycle and wreaks havoc in their lives. The Dangerous Lives of Altar Boys jumps back and forth between the misadventures of these boys who love a good prank (they go so far as to abscond with the school's revered statute of St. Agatha) and the animated fantasy sequences that play in Francis' imagination, in which the superheroes fight Nunzilla and her minions. The animation by Todd McFarlane (Spawn) in this portion of the film is a little crude in execution, but in keeping with what the boys might have imagined themselves. The comic-book sequences don't distract from the real-life dramas in Tim and Francis's lives -- Francis' relationship with his sexually precocious girlfriend (a lovely performance by Malone), the confiscation of a tattered notebook of Atomic Trinity sketches that includes not-so-flattering drawings of you-know-who -- but, rather, flesh them out in a way that's refreshingly innovative. The hyper-emotionalism of the animated passages conveys what these boys can't seem to articulate, being the confused adolescent males that they are. While some of The Dangerous Lives of Altar Boys doesn't make a whole lot of narrative sense -- why are these guys so fixated on their ultimate act of risk-taking, a prank that involves stealing a mountain lion from a local nature preserve? -- those lapses are forgivable, particularly given the film's determination not to lapse into cheap sentiment and the like. In many ways, this is the thinking-person's teen movie, an ideal half of a double-feature paired with that other summer movie about perplexed male adolescence and comic-book superheroes.