The Dangerous Lives of Altar Boys

(2002) ** 1/2 R
105 min. ThinkFilm. Director: Peter Care. Cast: Kieran Culkin, Jena Malone, Emile Hirsch, Vincent D'Onofrio, Jodie Foster.

Peter Care's The Dangerous Lives of Altar Boys, based on Chris Furman's posthumously published 1994 cult novel, captures youthful disaffection and the yearning to fill the emotional void which opens amidst fractured families and aloof "instructors," but it has to fight the (correct) perception that we've seen this all before, in surer hands than Care's. The film starts out uneasily, settles into an entertaining (if not terribly punchy) groove, and rolls to its inevitable stop. But as divertingly watchable as Altar Boys is, it fails to mine real depths, settling instead for an eye-popping gimmick and what amounts to stunt casting to stoke the slow-burning embers to life.

Altar Boys follows a group of rebellious Catholic school boys (is there any other kind?) in 1974. The boys particularly dread the terse, perpetually displeased Sister Assumpta (Jodie Foster), who becomes the centerpiece villain in their homemade "Atomic Trinity" comic books. The group revolves around best friends Francis (Emile Hirsch)--a talented artist--and Tim (Kieran Culkin), whose friendship is challenged--no!--by hormonal stirrings of pride and the fear of the onset of weary, failure-induced, adult ennui. Francis takes tentative steps with a troubled new girlfriend, Margie (Jena Malone), while Tim plots pranks to remind himself he is alive and irrepressible.

Altar Boys surely has a lot going for it, beginning with tender performances from its young leads. Hirsch makes a good, callow protagonist, eyes flaring up as he draws and, later, as Tim and Margie--for better and worse--push his emotional buttons. Culkin's rash energy and dark humor provide an apt counterpoint, and Malone fetchingly wears her wounded way. Bonus points for Vincent D'Onofrio's endearingly clueless Father Casey. Uncharacteristically, Foster winds up being a distraction by hopelessly trying to beef up an obviously undernourished role.

Care's gimmick here is a series of animated interludes by noted comic book artist and animator Todd McFarlane. Even this angle has already been explored to darker, more vital effect (in Bill Cain's play Stand-Up Tragedy, adapted for cable television as Thicker Than Water). Nevertheless, McFarlane's moody, comic-art tone poems make a healthy tailwind for the story, concretizing the idea of mythical escape from reality.

Screenwriters Jeff Stockwell and Michael Petroni nicely tug a thread of William Blake's philosophical poetry through the narrative, but neither they nor the music-video-trained Care can cultivate the authentically dark tones and dangerous humor that would compliment the dramatic payoff. Instead, the ending plays like melodramatic mush more suited to a Macaulay Culkin film than a Kieran Culkin one; a more ingenious director might have made the leap. Like its restless characters, The Dangerous Lives of Altar Boys is easy to like, but a little hard to love.

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