Here’s a sincere but irreverent comedy/drama produced by Jodie Foster, who also co-stars as Sister Assumpta, well-meaning teacher and eternal tormentor of teenage Catholic school students Francis Doyle (Emile Hirsh) and Tim Sullivan (Kieran Culkin). These two might be altar boys to Father Casey (Vincent D’Onofrio), but they’re anything but nice and innocent. They are mostly preoccupied with skimming booze from their parents’ liquor cabinets, bullshitting about their non-existent sex lives and reading and drawing comic books.
The film, as written by Jeff Stockwell from the novel by the late Chris Fuhrman, maintains a laid back but lively tone, like the characters. The storytelling feels loose, going from moment to moment, day to day, with casually progressing events like Francis’ awkward attempt at making a move on the girl next door (Jena Malone) or Tim’s scheme to get back at Sister Assumpta by kidnapping the zoo’s cougar and unleashing it in her office! Yet piece by piece, all these little things amount to an unexpectedly poignant coming of age story.
“The Dangerous Lives of Altar Boys” benefits from confident direction by Peter Care, best known as a music video director for R.E.M and Depeche Mode. His film possesses some of the lyricism of “The Virgin Suicides”, with trees and skies almost acting as supporting players, and it can also be as hilarious a study in long-haired hedonism as “Dazed and Confused”. Like both those films, “Altar Boys” is set in the 70s, back when kids still spent their time off school riding around on their bikes instead of playing video games and when music still acted as a universal soundtrack to people’s lives instead of being infinitely divided into single serving Walk Man doses. In that regard, the guitar-driven score by Marco Beltrami is particularly enjoyable.
The movie’s biggest strength, however, lies in the performances by the young cast. Kieran Culkin is wonderfully enthusiastic as the creative but reckless Tim always coming up with crazy ideas, and he confirms that the signature Culkin grin is still effective even though Macaulay is MIA from the screen. Emile Hirsh plays Francis as a much more introspective, apparently always “chill” dude, but there’s much going on behind those eyes, especially when he’s with Jena Malone’s Margie. She’s as cute as it gets, and their scenes together display all the tenderness and nervousness of first love, but the film heightens the stakes considerably by making Margie way too knowing for her years. She has a painful secret, and she’s “so afraid she’s crazy that she’s going crazy.”
Last but not least is the movie’s “gimmick”, which has the narrative sometimes switching to animation sequences by Todd McFarlane in which the boys’ fears and desires are magnified into the colorful adventures of mighty, bigger than life heroes like Captain Ass Kicker and the Muscle battling the evil Nunzilla! More than a mere eccentricity, the animated scenes enrich the characters by completely unshackling their overflowing imaginations. “The Dangerous Lives of Altar Boys” lacks a je ne sais quoi to achieve greatness, but it makes for a nice warm-up for next year’s similarly themed but inevitably more profound “The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay”, Michael Chabon’s adaptation of his own Pulitzer prize winning novel about comic book obsessed teenagers. In any case, “Altar Boys” is a very good, thoroughly pleasing film as it is.