Rich, strange and riddled with imperfections, The Dangerous Lives of Altar Boys runs the distinct risk of having its sins overlooked a little too easily in what more and more seems a particularly grim summer of movie going. It’s so much better than most everything out there right now, that its virtues seem exaggerated and its flaws minimized. Even in a good season, this debut feature from video director Peter Care would be worth everyone’s attention, but perhaps kept in better perspective. Based on the cult novel by Chris Fuhrman (who died of cancer before the book’s publication), the film offers three splendid performances from its young cast — Kieran Culkin, Emile Hirsch, Jena Malone — an edgy, inventive stylistic approach, and perhaps the most convincingly unforced depiction of the early 1970s in a small southern town yet committed to film. This last is worth some consideration when you examine how it was done. Rather than fall back on the stock accouterments of the era (which more often than not pertain to the latter half of the decade anyway), The Dangerous Lives of Altar Boys wisely invests the film with a more timeless look (the clothes might be from 1965 or 1974, or last week) and it leaves the period touches very much in the background via a bit of a Kolchak: The Night Stalker episode on a TV in the background, a Stephen Stills album on a record player, etc. Even the choices are telling, in that they indicate genuine individual traits in the characters and aren’t just cookie-cutter ’70s standards. These characters seem to actually inhabit those times, rather come across as actors deliberately trying to evoke an era other than their own. The story’s narrative has come under some criticism by noting that the dangers the boys find themselves in are wholly of their own making, but that’s not an entirely convincing assessment. When we first meet Francis Doyle (Emile Hirsch) and Tim Sullivan (Kieran Culkin), they are preparing to test a geometrical theory they’ve learned at school — which, in this case, involves felling a cross-like telephone pole with a chainsaw, working it out just so the pole will crash a bottle at their feet and barely miss crushing them. On a purely symbolic level, it seems a perfectly reasonable statement on the dangers of the repression foisted on the characters by their Catholic school doctrines. The dangers may be fabricated, but I’m not so sure that it’s really the boys who are fabricating them. The film is at pains to note that all of the boys’ various pranks — even the final one that can hardly be called a prank — are in reaction to what they feel to be the unnatural suppression of the school in general and Sister Assumpta (Jodie Foster) in particular. Their rebellion — starting with the creation of a comic book (The Atomic Trinity) that depicts them as super heroes and Sister Assumpta as a kind of nun dominatrix called Nunzilla — against the school, its rules, and its dogma is natural enough and generally plays out believably. So too, does the relationship between Francis and Maggie Flynn (Jena Malone). In fact, this may be the most believably complex childhood “romance” I’ve ever seen, and its depiction of a first sexual encounter one of the most honest. The film’s primary stylistic departure from the novel lies in translating the first-person thoughts of Francis into animated allegories of the characters’ adventures. This sounds more facile than it is. The animated segments — by Spawn’s Todd McFarlane — actually serve a thematic function in that they immediately illustrate the degree of importance all this has in the minds of the kids. Dangerous Lives, however, is not without some very significant problems that it never quite surmounts. The last section of the film crosses the line into melodrama that seems somehow less shattering than merely unbelievable. The real problem, though, is the amazing sketchiness of the school itself. As depicted in the film, the school barely exists. Most of the time, its entire staff seems to consist of Vincent D’Onofrio’s distracted, chain-smoking priest and Jodie Foster’s one-legged, scooter-riding nun (sort of The Singing Nun by way of Luis Bunuel). This gives the movie a strange feeling that isn’t entirely convincing. It certainly isn’t enough to scuttle the film, but it does throw it off center. That to one side, The Dangerous Lives of Altar Boys is a worthy, adult movie-going experience for those of us wanting something more than the overprocessed mind candy that’s largely filling the multiplexes these days.
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