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'The Dangerous Lives of Altar Boys'

'Boys' will be boys

Friday, June 21, 2002

By Barry Paris, Post-Gazette Movie Critic

Relax. It's not what you (and I) automatically assumed from the title. "The Dangerous Lives of Altar Boys" -- the ones at hand, at least -- do not include pedophilia.


RATING: R for language, cartoon violence and sex themes.

STARRING: Emile Hirsch, Kieran Culkin, Jodie Foster

DIRECTOR: Peter Care



Catholic high schoolers Francis (Emile Hirsch), Tim (Kieran Culkin) and their pals are more naughty than nice, to be sure, but it's not the clergy's fault. These boys are just precocious pranksters, battling hormones and authority figures with an equal vengeance.

Their Enemy-in-Chief is Sister Assumpta, played by Jodie Foster in a highly unlikely role (but no bigger stretch, I suppose, than that of Anna opposite the King of Siam). In any case, she is understandably outraged when our guys pull off the audacious heist of a statue of the school's patron saint.

"Make no mistake," she declares in George W. Bush-speak, "I will find the culprits!"

The boys, meanwhile, use their considerable imaginations and artistic skills to create a comic-book, violent-virtual universe featuring a fiendish motorcycle-riding villainess resembling nun other than Sister Assumpta, who does battle with the boys' altar egos in ongoing animated fantasy sequences that parallel their live-action mischief.

Talk about Hell's Angels. This sister and her henchwomen are Heaven's Devils of the cartoon kind -- the perfect foils for adolescent adventure. Co-foil, in their real as opposed to cartoon life, is Father Casey (Vincent D'Onofrio), the school's dubious leader and chain-smoking soccer coach, whose sacrilegious traits include profanity-laden speech and a habit of consulting his fortune-telling 8-ball -- rather than the Lord -- before making difficult decisions.

It's not as blasphemous as it sounds -- funny but not ridiculous in the sophomoric "American Pie" sex-farce sense. If the church is not portrayed lovingly, neither is it so hideously caricatured as the above description might suggest. That would be due to the unusual nature of the script, based on Chris Fuhrman's tragicomic "coming-of-age" novel, set in small-town North Carolina during the '70s.

"I want people to remember how it was when they were children," said Fuhrman, who died of cancer at 31 before its publication. "I don't want them to grow up entirely. Every adult is the creation of a child."

Whether he succeeds is up to you, but Fuhrman and director Peter Care have done their best to intersperse the wild romps with sensitive character portraits of vulnerable kids with real issues. Not least of them is Francis' girlfriend Margie (Jena Malone, who played Foster as a young girl in "Contact"): She has a sadly serious sex secret of her own.

First-time feature director Care, hitherto a maker of music-video and concert pictures, elicits a set of solid, professional performances from his cast, most notably in the sullen sweetness of young Hirsch, whose open-faced "unfinished" features are perfect and perfectly tentative in one lovely kissing scene with Malone. Culkin (Macaulay's bro!) nicely executes his sharper-edged role as the brains behind this outfit's most dangerous horseplay -- on and off the "activity bus" -- with good support from Jake Richardson and Tyler Long to round out the gang. Foster does OK, though her part is really just a glorified cameo.

On the technical side, animator Todd McFarlane (of "Spawn" fame) provides stunning pseudo-superhero visuals, thematically doctored up with invocations of Blake's "Songs of Innocence" and "Songs of Experience." His little tigers burn bright, indeed, here -- a little too bright for their own good.

But, oooh, that title: "The Dangerous Lives of Altar Boys" is perversely unfortunate for its topical confusion. On the other hand, it's perversely fortunate for crass box-office promotion. If the worst thing priests ever did was smoke or curse, the church would breathe a sigh of relief these days and, perhaps, turn its attention to Margie's problem instead of the boys'.

The film's unwittingly lurid name, in any case, shouldn't obscure the fact that it is far from formulaic and contains fine lyrical and satirical moments, as well as a strange, downbeat twist ending. The mockingbird killed here is a parochial one, full of innocence -- plus a little guilt.

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