If there was ever a more timely title than The Dangerous Lives of Altar Boys I’d like to hear it. That said, Peter Care’s coming of age film has nothing to do with the present turmoil surrounding the Catholic Church, but rather a more cynical and serious look at teenage boys doing what they do best – being teenagers. However, despite churning out some good performances, a plot that deals with some real teenage issues other than sex and a distinct visual flair, Altar Boys just doesn’t feel right.
Growing up in the 1970s, Tim (Kieran Culkin) and Francis (Emile Hirsch) are the bad apples at their Catholic school. No matter what they do, their wooden legged teacher Sister Assumpta (Jodie Foster) always looks at the pair with a suspicious eye. You know the speech, “You have so much potential,” “You could make something of yourself,” “Blah, blah, blah, blah, blah, blah, blah…” In their spare time Tim and Francis hang out with their other friends riding bikes, milling about, stealing their school’s statue and drawing comics.
Their comics come to life through the animation of Todd McFarlane, creator of Spawn. These animated sequences have the film’s characters adopting super hero personas such as Captain Asskicker and the Muscle. Together they take on the evil Nunzilla and her band of motorcycle-riding henchmen. The cartoons follow the internal struggle Tim and Francis go through as they begin to grow up. Typical of teenage angst, it a matter of us against them, with ‘us’ being the boys and ‘them’ being the rest of the world, especially their parents and teachers. McFarlane’s animation captures the exaggerations of standard muscle-bound heroes well. The problem I had with these scenes were that stylistically speaking, they are about 15 years ahead of their time. The heroes are seen from the perspective of Tim and Francis. Their imaginations would be influenced by the comics of the time. Instead they think at a rate some distance in the future. From a purely technical standpoint, this style could not have been fathomed in the 1970s. It does look good now and I’m probably being far too nit-picky but when I boil it down, the leap made it harder for me to believe and care for the boys.
Besides hormonal issues standard among 14-year-old boys, Altar Boys looks at several dark and heavy issues including incest and relationships with and an honest and genuine approach. Rather than taking the common road of American Pie and its many teen gross-out successors, director Peter Care takes Francis and Tim through the real trials of being a teenager. Although Culkin is hardly a newcomer having had past roles ranging from a bit part in Home Alone, to supporting spots in Nowhere to Run and The Cider House Rules, this marks Culkin’s first adult role. I had a bit of a tough time separating Emile Hirsch from the dimwitted Kelso from TV’s That 70’s Show at first. Besides a similar appearance, Francis didn’t exactly come across as a MENSA candidate in the beginning. But as the film hit its stride Hirsch really began to shine. Unlike Culkin’s internally depressed Tim, Francis had a slightly optimistic look on life. In his debut film, Hirsch is charming, funny and, most important of all, real. It was also nice to see Jodie Foster in a role where she’s not the heroine. Although the part is small and rather limited, if nothing else she’s memorable for her pirate-like appearance and treasure chest desk collection.
The acting and compelling stories are there in Altar Boys, which is based on the novel by Chris Fuhrman. But like one of the seemingly infinite number of Culkin boys in puberty, the finished product for some reason comes across as awkward. I believed and appreciated what the characters dealt with, but it took on just too much all at once. In bringing up many real topics, several are introduced and left to waste. Others are dwelled upon longer than they should have. I’ve had a hard time putting an exact pulse on what the problem I’m having with Altar Boys because I liked so many of the bigger things about it. But you have to look at the film as a whole and on the whole Altar Boys does work. It is a nice, although depressing, change of pace from Jason Biggs making a loveable fool out of himself where young adults are battling the void between childhood and adulthood they with some seriousness and maturity.
The Dangerous Lives of Altar Boys Gallery