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Read past reviews by the Film Gang

The Dangerous Lives of Altar Boys
Reviewed by Carla Freccero

Now playing at the Del Mar and at Osio Plaza, The Dangerous Lives of Altar Boys is directed by Peter Care, a video director making his feature film debut.  The movie's based on a posthumously published book by Chris Fuhrman, who died of cancer in 1991 at the age of 31. The film is interspliced with beautifully done animation scenes by Todd McFarlane (of Spawn fame), which are supposed to be the comic book narrative that the group of boys (of indeterminate age) compose as they live their lives in an unidentified small southern town (the author is from Georgia and the book was set there).  It's a story about adolescence, Catholic school, boredom, youthful experimentation, and one's first true love. The main characters are the troubled and sardonically witty Tim (played by Kieran Culkin, Home Alone's baby brother and an accomplished actor in his own right); the dangerously gorgeous Francis (played by Emile Hirsch and resembling Donnie Darko); and Margie, Francis's heartthrob, played by the ever-captivating Jena Malone.  The other boys never quite emerge as full-fledged characters (they draw lousy cartoons too), and the grown-ups have only cameo appearances, except for the two who run the school, St. Agatha.  These are the priest, Father Casey (played by Vincent D'Onofrio) and, of course, the evil Sister Assumpta, played by Jodie Foster. 

People say Foster does a great job in this movie and that she was born to play a nun, but whenever she uses that breathy squeaky voice she developed for Silence of the Lambs and can't seem to get rid of I become annoyed.  This is no role for Starling, the young, naïve and wounded fledgling FBI agent. Anyway, I thought her character veered too much between plausible tone-deaf sternness and compassionate understanding.  The nuns of my Catholic childhood tended not to reveal their soft underbellies.  Father Casey is more interesting, a priest who smokes incessantly and identifies strongly with the burgeoning hormonal activity of his young charges (but chastely, of course.  The movie makes no allusion whatsoever to the scandals happening now; it was made long before).

There are a series of pranks bordering on the seriously dangerous, and a quest: for love, for meaning, for heroism.  These boys are at that tender age right before the world turns them into seemingly insensitive, stoic men, that age when they are more vulnerable than girls, because they have also been exposed to less.  Except Tim, whose unhappy home life and extraordinary intelligence make him the introspective, tortured one. Margie, true to the experience of adolescent girlhood, already knows too much, has suffered, and is full of grown-up secrets: her romance with Emile is her effort to recapture an innocence she has lost but he still retains.  In the course of the movie, he loses his too, and we watch not only an era in the lives of children but also in the life of American middle-class suburban existence come to a poignant close. 

I can't give the plot away-there are too many twists of fate-but what is amazing and impressive in this small and rather quiet movie is that it manages to convey a semi-idealized but sort of accurate sketch of the social and psychic lives of small-town Catholic sixties' and early seventies' adolescents' coming of age without a heavy dose of saccharine nostalgia.  It's right up there with Ghost World (but not as postmodern) and The Virgin Suicides (but not quite so tortured).

Finally, it also gives one a deeper appreciation of comic book art as a medium that translates the hopes, fears and aspirations of young boys, including their struggles with what is terrible and frightening about their bodies, their feelings, and their minds.  Looking for trouble at the movies, for KUSP and the film gang, this is Carla Freccero.

Copyright Carla Freccero 2002