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DANGEROUS LIVES OF ALTAR BOYS, THE (director: Peter Care; screenwriters: Jeff Stockwell/based on the book by Chris Fuhrman; cinematographer: Lance Acord; editor: Chris Peppe; music: Marco Beltrami; animation producer: Todd McFarlane; cast: Kieran Culkin (Tim Sullivan), Jena Malone (Margie Flynn), Emile Hirsch (Francis Doyle), Vincent D’Onofrio (Father Casey), Jodie Foster (Sister Assumpta), Jake Richardson (Wade), Tyler Long (Joey Scalisi), Chandler McIntyre (Park Ranger); Runtime: 105; rated: R; producers: Jodie Foster/Jay Shapiro/Meg LeFauve; ThinkFilm Inc.; 2002)
“The film does a good job bringing out the fragile and sensitive sides to teens who are searching for answers adults can’t give them.”

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

The film disappoints not necessarily because it missed its mark, but because its approach to the Catholic Church and the coming-of-age tale does not cover the topic that caught this country’s interest at present — the church’s pedophile priests and the hierarchy that did nothing to protect the child victims. Therefore by telling of a more innocent time when parochial schools and the mean sisters left bruises on many a wayward student, the film seems to be covering territory that is too familiar and often mentioned with a certain fondness by former victims of this child abuse.

Its main fault is that it relies too heavily on the great English poet William Blake and his poem “The Tyger” from his “Songs Of Innocence and Songs of Experience,” to give this film the weight it didn’t think it could carry on its own. The central idea of that complicated poem is that there is not only the Lamb (innocent) in this world but the Tyger (experience), who symbolizes the angry God. The poem is a query, as Blake asks a question he knows the answer to: “Did he who made the lamb make thee?” The idea for the question is that everyone must come to their own conclusion in their answer. For Blake, the Tyger is not the contrary of the Lamb but its negation. The Tyger was created by the God of Reason, not by the benign Creator, because the all-loving Father could not be responsible for these horrors of Wrath without offering Mercy or Justice. The film uses this poem to explain the plight of its main character, Tim Sullivan, a fan of the poet. The film and the poem connect at a certain point, especially when Blake is called a dangerous thinker by the nun, but the overall effort is a forced one. Altar Boys has to sweat a lot to get its points across about “fearful symmetry,” and would have been probably better off dropping the comparative symbolism altogether and sticking with its own coming-of-age story.

Peter Care, a music video veteran, makes his feature debut film as a director. Altar Boys is adapted from Chris Fuhrman’s posthumous semiautobiographical novel, and it weaves a cautious teen tale that is set in the undisclosed Southern suburbs of the 1970s. What gives this film a novel stylish approach is that added onto the script authored by Jeff Stockwell, are the colorful animation sequences accomplished by animation producer Todd McFarlane (creator of Spawn).

Altar Boys is about anxiety-ridden, questioning of authority, middle-class teenage friends from birth, Tim Sullivan (Kieran Culkin) and Francis Doyle (Emile Hirsch), who are fellow altar boys, bicycle riders around town, avid comic book collectors. They are in the same class in St. Agatha’s parochial school. Tim is born to be a troublemaker and a prankster, who tries desperately to court danger in order to escape the grim reality of his embattled home life where his alcoholic dad and his argumentative mother use their home as a battlefield. Tim drags a sometimes reluctant Francis along with his mischievous pranks. Francis is someone who is a thinker and an inward person, whose authoritarian father leaves little room for communication between father and son. They are joined by two other outcasts who are more cautious of their rebel role, Wade (Jake Richardson) and Joey (Tyler Long). They all have vivid imaginations, and their hormones are bursting with sexual energy and their thought process is filled with dirty sexual images. They need to have an outlet for their adolescent pent-up wrath and lifelong disappointments, so they create a fantasy rich comic book filled with anatomically enhanced superheroes, naked women, superimposed villains that look like their teachers (the chief villainess is Nunzilla–Sister Assumpta). They, of course, are the superheroes which serve as their alter-egos.

The boys’ teacher is the stern, no-nonsense, peg legged, and sexually repressed Sister Assumpta (Jodie Foster). It’s a flat supporting role she does not butcher nor does she play it with distinction. The boys’ chain-smoking soccer coach is their other main authoritarian figure, their parish priest, Father Casey (Vincent D’Onofrio). Casey frowns on the teen’s rebellious spirit but is more generous and reflective in his attitude than the tight-lipped Sister Assumpta, as he doesn’t believe with the same fervor in the dogma as she does. When the boys ingeniously steal the school’s statue of St. Agatha, which rested on the building’s tower, all the miffed high school school officials could do is put the pressure on the known troublemakers to bring it back.

Francis has a crush on the cute but troubled Margie Flynn (Jena Malone), who once tried to commit suicide and now believes she sees ghosts. Francis is too shy to act on this crush. But to his rescue comes Tim, who sent her Blake’s Tyger poem with a love note and signed it Francis. Tim substituted Margie for Tyger. This brings the two teens together, both of whom are filled with enough angst to overflow all the rivers in the state of South Carolina (Altar Boys was filmed in North and South Carolina). They come into each other’s arms wearing badges of honesty on their heavy hearts. Francis’ secret schoolboy pranks seem like child’s play, which is what it is, compared with Margie’s deeply personal secret, which puzzles Francis and leaves him uncertain of how to act toward her now that he knows something about her he couldn’t imagine possible. Meanwhile, Tim shows a resentment that his friend is pulling away from him and hanging out more with Margie.

When the risque comic-strip drawings come into the hands of their imagined archenemy Sister Assumpta and she expels them, the boys decide to go through with their most daring, dangerous and foolish prank (this part seemed unbelievable and didn’t fit seamlessly into the more pertinent teen inner-conflict story). Inspired by a visit to the local wildlife park and a question-and-answer session given by the park ranger, the boys decide to anesthetize the caged cougar with a homemade mixture of drugs and a Kmart dart gun. They then planned to unleash the animal on Sister Assumpta.

The film does a good job bringing out the fragile and sensitive sides to teens who are searching for answers adults can’t give them. The boys and one girl are really good in expressing many shades to their personality, and in showing how they are so vulnerable because they lack experience and are still dependent on their parents and teachers for guidance. While the story tries to cover too much ground, it still covers it in a sincere search for the truth about its characters. “Tyger! Tyger! burning bright” was about energy being more essential than goodness, and when the film didn’t get bogged down in trying to come up with the ultimate dumb teen prank — it had plenty of energy to spare for its creative teens to mop up the screen with their intense search for identity.


Dennis Schwartz: “Ozus’ World Movie Reviews”