The Dangerous Lives of Altar Boys

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.

A note to readers: Bold and uncensored, The Austin Chronicle has been Austin’s independent news source for almost 40 years, expressing the community’s political and environmental concerns and supporting its active cultural scene. Now more than ever, we need your support to continue supplying Austin with independent, free press. If real news is important to you, please consider making a donation of $5, $10 or whatever you can afford, to help keep our journalism on stands.

Support the Chronicle  

READ MORE
More Kieran Culkin Films
Infinity Baby
Babies (young and old) who can't grow up

Josh Kupecki, Sept. 15, 2017

Wiener-Dog
Todd Solondz sets a pup in a world of humans who are all bark and more bite

Steve Davis, July 1, 2016

More by Steve Davis
Sin
Portrait of the original Renaissance man lets obsession obscure the vision

Feb. 19, 2021

The World to Come
Frontier romance speaks of a love that cannot speak the name it does not yet have

Feb. 12, 2021

KEYWORDS FOR THIS FILM

The Dangerous Lives of Altar Boys, Peter Care, Kieran Culkin, Emile Hirsch, Jodie Foster, Jena Malone, Vincent D'Onofrio, Tyler Long

MORE IN THE ARCHIVES
NEWSLETTERS
One click gets you all the newsletters listed below

Breaking news, arts coverage, and daily events

Can't keep up with happenings around town? We can help.

Austin's queerest news and events

New recipes and food news delivered Mondays

All questions answered (satisfaction not guaranteed)

Information is power. Support the free press, so we can support Austin.   Support the Chronicle