The perils in The Dangerous Lives of Altar Boys have nothing to do with predatory priests, the current arch-villains of the news media. The film's young heroes are more likely to fall victim to their own restlessness and hormones, as Altar Boys is more focused on the dangers of adolescence than Catholicism. As a coming-of-age story, though, Boys proves a bit too much like its imaginative but awkward protagonists.
The film is dedicated to Chris Fuhrman, who wrote the novel of the same name and died of cancer before publication. The book's setting of 1970s Savannah has been relocated to a small, unspecified town in the rural South. Best friends Tim Sullivan (Kieran Culkin) and Francis Doyle (Emile Hirsch) feel stifled by their Catholic school, embodied by the bullying Sister Assumpta (Jodie Foster), a nun with a wooden leg and a motor scooter.
Both boys are dreamers, with smart-mouthed Tim focused on executing grand revenges against the school, while soft-spoken Francis aspires to illustrate comic books and woo classmate Margie (Jena Malone). Director Peter Care makes pop music documentaries such as R.E.M.'s Road Movie, and he's most effective at capturing the pastimes of small-town teens. Tim, Francis and their two sidekicks (Jake Richardson and Tyler Long) hang out in abandoned buildings in their school uniforms, drinking booze pilfered from their parents, then eating anchovies to disguise the alcohol on their breath.
The four boys are also writing their own comic book called The Atomic Trinity, featuring heroes with names like The Ass-Kicker and Major Screw. Margie inspires a beleaguered princess, Sister Assumpta a chopper-riding nemesis, and the dialogue sets off bad puns such as, "I feel like kicking a nasty habit!" The recurring comic book storyline unfolds in 10 minutes of animation from Spawn creator Todd McFarlane. When we first see the boys' creations, animated in pencil on lined notebook paper, it's a pitch-perfect rendering of classroom fantasies set to motion. But the novelty of the animated story wears off quickly and fails to advance the plot until the very end.
You might imagine that an action-packed comic book fantasy would offer a sharp contrast to Tim and Francis' humdrum reality. But the live-action plot goes to extremes on its own. Not only does the film feature a one-legged nun, there's an enigmatic ghost, an elaborate prank involving a vicious cougar and third-act sexual revelations that neither the boys nor the filmmakers know how to deal with. When the boys go to great lengths to steal a prized religious statue, Altar Boys more resembles a post-Animal House slob comedy than a serious look at growing up.
Foster serves as one of the film's producers and reportedly grew so enamored of the Sister Assumpta character that she wanted to play her. She tries to humanize Assumpta, looking for the devout, uncertain educator beneath the zealous disciplinarian. It's an understandable instinct, but wrong: Assumpta should strike fear into young hearts, and when she mocks Tim's troubled family background, she's genuinely nasty. Alas, Foster's Assumpta is no formidable figure but a wimp in a wimple. Her students would roll right over her rather than imagine her as "Nunzilla," an icon of abusive authority.
Hirsh tends to underplay Francis, making him seem overly mousy and self-absorbed, but he has sweet scenes with Malone as they tentatively get to know each other's bodies and minds. When they spend a night in her room, looking at the luminescent stars on her ceiling, it's as heart-warming an image of puppy love as you could find.
It's a given that teenage boys are drawn to obnoxious behavior like magnets to steel. Care and his young cast are careful not to sugarcoat their characters, and Culkin's insolent grin gets wider as actions worsen. But neither Culkin, Hirsch nor scripter Jeff Stockwell quite make their teen angst compelling. The Dangerous Lives of Altar Boys isn't as engrossing or well-rounded as TV's "Freaks and Geeks," but it's at least an honest portrayal of its young heroes, pimples and all.