The Dangerous Lives of Altar Boys (2002) / Drama-Comedy

MPAA Rated: R for language, sexual content and youth substance use
Running Time: 104 min.

Cast: Emile Hirsch, Kieran Culkin, Jena Malone, Jodie Foster, Vincent D'Onofrio
Director: Peter Care
Screenplay: Jeff Stockwell, Michael Petroni (based on the book by Chris Fuhrman)

Review published December 14, 2002

The Dangerous Lives of Altar Boys is one of those films that starts off with promise only to eventually fall apart by overreaching its bounds.  Perhaps the most commendable feature of the film comes from how it looks visually, from the authentic looking 70s furniture and fashion, to the cross-cutting between reality and a parallel universe involving a super-hero cartoon.  Adapted from the novel by Chris Fuhrman, there's some funny dialogue and interesting insights delivered during the course of the film, and had the tone stayed within the bounds set during the opening scenes, this would have been an enjoyable slice of life film with humor and heart.  Someone had the idea that they needed seriousness to set in.  Seriousness in the form of incest, molestation and death.  That person seriously screwed up.

The film is set during the Seventies in Savannah, Georgia, where a quartet of young teen Catholic school boys spend much of their idle time pulling pranks and dreaming up comic book characters they'd like to draw.  One of the boys, Francis (Hirsch, The Emperor's Club), gets involved with another girl in the school (Malone, Donnie Darko) when his prankster friend, Tim (Culkin, The Cider House Rules), gives her a note in Francis' name.  The two are a natural match, but things get a little too deep for Francis when the girl reveals that she has tried suicide because she hates herself, and also reveals her brother has forced sex from her.  Meanwhile, the boys steal a statue of the school martyr, and get into a heap of trouble with the strict nun instructor whom they despise.

First, I have to give credit to director Care, who spent much of his career as a director of music videos, for giving the film a nice look and many touches that show he is someone intimately familiar with the life and times of the era.  I would also like to give credit to the cast of youngsters for carrying most of the film, and one with complex issues to deal with to boot.  There's a lot of talent all around the production.

That said, the film begins to lose its sense of fun with a romance that doesn't seem very authentic from a 14-year-old's point of view.  There is also a hot and heavy kissing scene which also feels too adult for the material and the young teen characters perform it without a hint of awkwardness, which makes it all the more unconvincing.  However, there is certainly awkwardness once Jena Malone's character begins to divulge her psychological problems and family secrets.  For instance, she begins saying things about herself that makes the boy seem uncomfortable, and in a scene which seems too forced, she returns again and starts up immediately back into it.  From then on, the movie which seemed to have it altogether can't find its footing again, digressing to the point of violence and ultimately death of one of the characters.  Lastly, the film ends having resolved none of the issues it brings up, which begs the question of whether the filmmakers had any reasons for all of the angst-ridden issues except to create a phony sense of seriousness.  Are they just yanking our chain?

The Dangerous Lives of Altar Boys offers lots to like, but mars itself with heavy-handedness which is not only inappropriate, but is poorly conceived and developed.  I suppose some may come away liking it if they enjoy the cast, the cleverness of the writing, if they have actually been in Catholic school, or can actually buy into the romance and anguish storylines.  I enjoyed some of it too, but in the end I feel that, while the writing is commendable, the storytelling is very flawed.   This is one case where the reach exceeded the grasp.   

Qwipster's rating:

2002 Vince Leo