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The Dangerous Lives of Altar Boys

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All-Reviews.com Movie Review: The Dangerous Lives of Altar Boys

Starring: Kieran Culkin, Jena Malone
Director: Peter Care
Rated: R
RunTime: 105 Minutes
Release Date: June 2002
Genre: Drama


*Also starring: Vincent D'Onofrio, Jodie Foster, Emile Hirsch, Jake Richardson, Tyler Long



Review by Harvey Karten
3 stars out of 4

Boys will be boys, unless they're altar boys, right? Half right According to Peter Care, who directed Jeff Stockwell and Michael Petroni's screenplay adaptation of Chris Fuhrman's novel, at least some altar boys are no different from any others their own age. They're interested in sex primarily, especially given the repressed tone of their Catholic school, where one nun tells a kid who loves the poetry of William Blake that even that transcendent writer is dangerous. Blake? Dangerous? "Dangerous Lives" is a coming of age tale with a difference: Mr. Care's film is distinct in its use of comic-book animation paralleling developments in the plot, fantasies held by Francis Doyle, through whose eyes we see life as a 14-year-old. And oh, yes, they're interested in comic books, somewhat in sports, and did I mention sex?

At least one of the teachers we see at St. Agatha's either doesn't understand that or understands only too well, which accounts for her strictness. In one case, while the lads and lasses are on a school trip by bus to the local animal habitat, Sister Assumpta (Jodie Foster), who has a prosthetic leg ostensibly to make her seem more cruel than she really is, causes trouble by getting out of her seat up front, heads to the back, and confiscates the latest animated drawings of young Mr. Doyle.

The film starts as two best friends, Francis Doyle (Emile Hirsch) and Tim Sullivan (Kieran Culkin) play the first of several pranks, one that might make you think that these two, who are basically good kids from decent homes, would not go any further. Using a chain saw, they chop down a telephone pole, which barely misses them as it clunks heavily to the ground a foreshadowing of more alarming pranks to come. When they tow away a statue of the school's guardian, St. Agatha, both Sister Assumpta and the school's priest, Father Casey (Vincent D'Onofrio) are alarmed.

I've taught in public high schools for more years than I'd like to say and if I had two kids as basically nice as Tim and Francis I'd rejoice. I'd get a good laugh out of the animated comic books that Francis pens even if (in fact especially if) I were featured as the recipient and perpetrator of dastardly deeds. Even better, if I saw myself as a comic book hero on the big screen as Captain Harvey, taking Spider-Man actions against the forces of repression, I'd probably give both of the kids an A for Animated Behavior. Sister Assumpta has other ideas, but really, she's not a bad egg. We see by the softness of her gaze as she talks to the boys, questioning them about the stolen statue, that she really cares about them. She never raps their knuckles, she's a good teacher, and if she came over to my desk to give me a tongue lashing, I might even fall in love with her. But that's not this movie, whose most interesting complication lies in the relationship of young Francis with a classmate, Margie Flynn (Jena Malone), who has a deep secret which she reveals to this best friend as she introduces him to the mysteries of making out. Their first kiss will remind you of yours.

Jena Malone, in fact, is the show stealer here, in real life just short of eighteen years of age, who acts more mature than we'd really want her to be, who cries easily and has good, guilty reasons for doing so. Kieran Culkin, himself approaching the age of nineteen, does well as the troublemaker of the boys, leading them in one instance to the prankiest prank of all, the tranquilizing of a cougar with a blow dart filled with Nyquil, with the intention of taking the drugged cat to school.

The action takes place during the 1970s, a turbulent era in the U.S., though global politics has nothing to do with the action here. All is concentrated in a single, suburban area, all dealing with boys who have no cause for dysfunctional behavior except for the hormones that rage in all of us at that age and one girl who may never get over her guilt for a taboo erotic act performed several times by her in the past which will probably lead her ironically to become promiscuous in order to repress that guilt.

The animated sequences directed by Todd McFarlane are frequent, welcome and in tune with the quirkiness of the story; with Captain Asskicker substituting for the more popular Spider- Man because Captain A is simply more appropriate to the fantasies of the young man. The picture is considered art house fare because, I guess, of that very quirkiness, a peculiarity absent from the more generic Spider-Man.

Copyright 2002 Harvey Karten

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