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Grade: BDangerous Lives of Altar Boys, The (2002)

Director: Peter Care

Stars: Emile Hirsch, Kieran Culkin, Jena Malone, Jodie Foster

Release Company: ThinkFilm

MPAA Rating: R

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Peter Care: The Dangerous Lives of Altar Boys

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TIGER, tiger, burning bright
In the forests of the night,
What immortal hand or eye
Could frame thy fearful symmetry?
Despite the contrived plot device of weaving a zoo cougar into a fairly typical coming of age story, any film that evokes an emotional response from William Blake's famous poem deserves a look. And The Dangerous Lives of Altar Boys offers an enjoyable glimpse into teen relationships and their struggles to come to terms with themselves and a hostile universe. Just as Blake poses questions about God's creation of good and evil, director Peter Care cleverly incorporates these standard themes without posing as pedantically as paper-thin Jodie Foster's stereotypical nun character.

Set in the 1970's, young teenagers Francis Doyle (Emile Hirsch) and Tim Sullivan (Kieran Culkin) are best friends in a small town, where they serve as alter boys and attend the local Catholic high school, run by chain-smoking Father Casey (Vincent D'Onofrio) but dominated by the stern and bitter Sister Assumpta (Foster), who sees the world in clear cut black and white but only believes in the joyless side of Life. Her Ahab persona is heightened by her prosthetic left leg, and her obsessive determination to demonstrate God's wrath only incurs extreme hatred from her young rebellious charges, whose contempt especially elicits sympathy when the narrow-minded nun literally rips Tim's precious copy of Blake's The Marriage of Heaven and Hell. Their efforts to gain revenge give the story a sense of foreboding, predictably leading to disaster.

Summoning Stand By Me flashbacks, Francis and Tim enlist two other fellow students to brainstorm an underground comic project termed "The Atomic Trinity" with superhero alter egos like Screwdriver Man, Muscleman, and Captain Asskicker. A gifted artist, Francis translates their ideas into a narrative that casts Sister Assumpta as the evil Nunzilla, who leads a hoard of motorcycle riding sisters as the muscular superheroes help the beautiful Sorcerella unite her magical sword with a pearl to restore her righteous kingdom. This inspires the film's best moments. Drawing on his music video experience, Care fluidly incorporates Todd McFarlane animated to life vividly—mild mannered teens transform into righteous hulks who gore the enemy into bloody hunks of flesh. Each real life conflict with Sister Assumpta taps Francis' daydreams for material, reflecting his setbacks and desires for vengeance.

Based on Chris Furman's book, Jeff Stockwell and Michael Petroni's screenplay shows excellent insight into teenage male dialogue and mentality. Naturally laced with put downs, bravado, and insecurities much of the dialogue revolves around school gossip and mysterious girls. Tim senses that his buddy is attracted to Margie (Jena Malone), so he fakes a note to bring them together that leads them into greater conflict (along with added intimacy with devastating family secrets). Ah, the awkwardness and pure Hell that teens endure before emerging into adulthood.

The two buddies come from different sides of the tracks when it comes to family life, but they share insecurities and conflicts with a world that doesn't understand. Peers become far more important to teens—The Dangerous Lives of Alter Boys captures this: The priest, nun, and parents all play supporting plot devices more than flesh and blood characters. While the priest and Francis' parents are well intentioned, good-hearted souls, Sister Assumpta and Tim's parents remain emotionally handicapped and are incapable of lending support to troubled teens.

The only adults who relate to the teens are both associated with drugs, as if that's the only bridge that exists. The comic book seller also deals in other substances, and the zookeeper responds positively to Francis' pointed queries about animals and the nature of their souls, much to the chagrin of tight-lipped and judgmental Sister Assumpta, who prefers her charges to stick to the Catechism. Francis and Tim are convinced that the zookeeper must be stoned—how else could an adult be so receptive to their weird ideas?

Most teens cover their emotionally damaged hearts well enough to function, only revealing their scars on rare occasions to trusted peers. When Francis learns Margie's horrible family secret, he has no idea how to handle it—he's far less equipped to handle the dark side of human nature than Blue Velvet's Jeffrey Beaumon—so he bikes off to share with his buddy Tim, only to find Tim buried deeply into the fantasy of TV-land while his parents rant and rave in the kitchen. Lest we think that Tim has totally blocked out his dysfunctional family and copes solely by planning fantastic revenge plots, he later reveals to Francis that he understands that he can "get real." Like most teen boys (and men for that matter) Tim can't verbalize his feelings to his male buddy, but his actions and body language communicate clearly when he encounters an injured dog.

Surviving adolescence certainly is a dangerous thing, and not everyone comes out unscathed. The Dangerous Lives of Altar Boys certainly has flaws, like overt symbolic plot devices, stereotyped adult characters, and predictable coming of age drama a la films like Stand By Me and Dead Poet's Society. However, melding the dynamic animations in a well-paced plot and natural acting by the two teenage leads make the film enjoyable and worthwhile. Add to that a lingering, haunting sensibility that shades characters with ambiguous grays compels us to consider forgiving even the most evil characters. Do we all not derive from similar circumstances? Can we remember our own teen traumas and what caused them? Just as Blake asks about the tiger: "Did He who made the lamb make thee?"
 


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