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Dustin's Review
The Dangerous Lives
of Altar Boys (2002)

2 Stars

Directed by Peter Care
Cast: Emile Hirsch, Kieran Culkin, Jena Malone, Jodie Foster, Vincent D'Onofrio, Jake Richardson, Tyler Long
2002 – 105 minutes
Rated: Rated R (for language, sexual content, and substance use).
Reviewed by Dustin Putman, June 30, 2002.

There is something universal about being 14-years-old. No longer a prepubescent child, but not yet a grown-up, authority figures are viewed as aliens and you're still in the stage of figuring out, exactly, where you fit in the world. This particularly uncomfortable age and all of these notions are eyed, quite astutely, in "The Dangerous Lives of Altar Boys," based upon the novel by Chris Fuhrman. The film's portrait of adolescent rebellion is rarely shown with such accuracy and directness, and that is the key to its success. Lucky, too, since with every remarkably deft moment comes scenes that don't fit and plot developments that remain uneven and undefined by the overall scheme of first-time director Peter Care.

Francis Doyle (Emile Hirsch) and Tim Sullivan (Kieran Culkin) are best friends and general outcasts at the strict Catholic high school they both attend, circa 1974. Looked upon as troublemakers on a path to sin by their teacher, Sister Assumpta (Jodie Foster), they while away their hours pulling pranks and working on a fictionalized comic book based on their lives called "The Atomic Trinity." Animating themselves as superheroes and Sister Assumpta as the villain, titled Nunzilla, they view their work on the comic as a way of expressing their anger and confusion at the world around them. Francis and Tim's friendship is strained with the entrance of schoolmate Margie Flynn (Jena Malone), who becomes Francis' girlfriend and is hiding a terrible secret destined to make a deep impression on each of them.

As a rather dark coming-of-age film that includes themes of substance abuse, theft, and incest, "The Dangerous Lives of Altar Boys" is worth praising for its acute sensitivity and uncompromising view of these subjects. The three central teenage characters—Francis, Tim, and Margie—are written and performed with sympathy and care, under the helm of some remarkably strong turns from the actors. None of them are saints and all of them have made mistakes in their past, but they do mean well, even when the immaturity of their ages shines through.

Intermittently cut between these scenes are animated interludes from "Spawn" creator Todd McFarlane, meant as a look at the comic book Tim and Francis are working on that parallels the live-action storyline. Although brightly drawn and stylish, these scenes promptly draw you out of the main plot rather than more intricately involve you. There is no denying the ingenuity of mixing animation and live-action in such a realistic teen drama, but there is never a satisfying payoff for their existence other than to back up what has already been seen.

As Francis, whom Sister Assumpta rather harshly and correctly labels a "follower," newcomer Emile Hirsch delivers a solid performance, especially for it being his first major role. He is surpassed in experience, however, by Kieran Culkin (1999's "The Cider House Rules"), who has aged quite a bit in the last few years he has been absent from the screen. As "leader" Tim, the time off has apparently only strengthened his capabilities as a burgeoning talent on the rise. This is Culkin's most challenging and impressive role, to date. Finally, Jena Malone is heartbreakingly real as the troubled Margie Flynn. With 2001's "Life as a House," 2001's "Donnie Darko," and now "The Dangerous Lives of Altar Boys," Malone has perfected the part of an angst-ridden teenager. No one, I believe, can do it with such professionalism and truth as Malone can at her age of 17. As the rigid Sister Assumpta, producer Jodie Foster (2002's "Panic Room") injects thankful humanity into a role that could have easily been nothing more than a caricature, while Vincent D'Onofrio (2000's "The Cell") makes only a minor imprint as the somewhat unorthodox Father Casey.

As "The Dangerous Lives of Altar Boys" winds itself into the third act, an ongoing subplot in which Francis and Tim plot to kidnap a cougar from the local zoo and place it in Sister Assumpta's office comes to the forefront. With it comes an escalation of events that do not add up to a great deal by the anticlimactic last scene. Even with its occasional pitfalls, the movie has a lot going for it, and the treatment of coming-of-age amongst a group of adults the teens cannot relate to, is handled with more originality than usual for a feature film production. As jaggedly formed as "The Dangerous Lives of Altar Boys" is around the edges, the focal point in each of these characters' lives remain crystal clear and solidly effective.

©2002 by Dustin Putman

Dustin Putman