The Dangerous Lives of Altar Boys

| July 6, 2002

If you’re comparing with the teen movies and the “not another” teen movies, The Dangerous Lives of Altar Boys is a masterpiece. We follow a group of schoolboys through their stupid pranks and delicate relationships with a healthy dose of reality, of not-made-for-TV, and the young actors gamely take up the challenge of portraying multi-dimensional characters rather than the cardboard stereotypes that adults seem to think best define teenagers. But that’s only if you’re comparing with the bottom of the barrel. In the World Coming-of-Age Movie Hall of Fame, Dangerous Lives is just a half-hearted attempt at a beautiful thing, salvaged to some extent by its innovative use of animation to wreak vengeance on wimpled enemies.
Let’s face it: two sets of people will get a huge kick out of this movie just because of the concept. On the one hand, you have the people like me who went to Catholic school and know that those nuns are really the Devil Incarnate, and any opportunity to torture them is one more step to Paradise. Jodie Foster’s Sister Assumpta becomes Nunzilla in the boys’ minds, a name that perfectly suits any number of Mother Superiors I have known in my time. On the other hand, you have the comic-book enthusiasts who finally get to see animation as respite from reality get pride of place on the big screen. I can just see Banky from Chasing Amy having a ball in the front row. And then there are, of course, those people who belong to both groups: those who sat in the back of class in Catholic school and drew incredibly malicious pictures of the nuns and priests getting it on, or getting their comeuppance. I can’t draw, so I guess I fall in just the first category, and I enjoyed every minute of the boys’ troublemaking from the little middle finger salute during prayer, to the “thoughtful” questions asked on a field trip to the zoo, all the way to stealing the statue of St. Agatha, the guardian of the school.
Unfortunately, the mischief interspersed with its translation into the animated story of the Atomic Trinity is the best part of the movie. Beyond that, director Peter Care seems to have little to say about growing up, being Catholic, or anything at all. Emile Hirsch as Francis Doyle, the artistic and thoughtful ringleader, gives a brilliantly nuanced performance as the essentially good boy who is a little conflicted about his friend Tim’s harebrained ideas: on the one hand, Tim needs to “get real”, but on the other, the artist in Francis wants to sketch out the possibilities for the perfect plan. Kieran Culkin as Tim, and to a lesser extent, Jena Malone as Margie Flynn, Francis’s sweetheart, seem a little too self-conscious, for which the script is at least partly responsible since it makes them say way too much. A less expressive Tim, and Margie blossoming from innocent to wronged with less commentary would have made placed them on par with the vividness of Francis’s character. But the trio, along with Jodie Foster as Sister Assumpta and Vincent D’Onofrio as Father Casey, give a spirited performance. Unfortunately, this is wasted on the fact that the director can’t decide whether to make this the ultimate flight from reality, every schoolboy’s dream, or a memoir about growing up in the seventies. Adapted from Chris Fuhrman’s cult coming-of-age novel, the story has a dark undertone of seriousness both in Todd MacFarlane’s animated sequences and in Francis’s furious drawing, which could have been used to draw the fantasy and reality of growing up closer together. Instead we are left with uninspired cinematography which hovers on the borderline between reminiscing and having fun, some scattered stock elements like gazing at the stars on the ceiling of Margie’s bedroom, pretending to be rock stars on an abandoned stage, and creeping into an abandoned house on a summer evening, and a general feeling of unfulfilled expectation.
To be fair, editor Chris Peppe and cinematographer Lance Acord keep a tight watch on the sweet-memories-of-summer sequences, thereby minimizing the kitsch. This is what raises your hopes. But then they are dashed in the end with Tim’s accident, Francis’s William Blake-inspired grief, and the rise of the new comic book hero, Skeleton Boy. Little boys are little boys but they can be truly evil and they can live in a gratuitous fantasy world where all their enemies are viciously devoured. A little more of this charming vindictiveness, and a little less of the “but they’re really softies inside” would have pulled Dangerous Lives to heights rarely seen before in teen movies stateside. Think about the raw material: we had a villain nun nicknamed Peg-leg–for obvious and cruel reasons–on a motorcycle, and a plan to release a cougar in her lair! Unfortunately, Care backs out at the end and we are left with an enjoyable summer movie, but not one that we will remember anything about a couple of years down the road.

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