The Dangerous Lives Of Altar Boys

on June 14, 2002 by Annlee Ellingson
   Slated to premiere at last year's Sundance Film Festival, "The Dangerous Lives of Altar Boys," based on the novel by Chris Fuhrman, was pulled from the lineup to allow more time to develop the pic's animated sequences. It was worth the wait. A coming-of-age drama set in the South in the early 1970s, the film stylishly illustrates the fantasy scenarios developed by its adolescent protagonists with sophisticated cartoons by "Spawn's" Todd McFarlane.

   Repressed under the iron fist of Sister Assumpta (Jodie Foster), who clumps around the classroom on a wooden leg, Francis (Emile Hirsch) and Tim (Kieran Culkin) spend their free time drawing comics, imagining themselves as action heroes Captain Ass Kicker and The Muscle, battling their arch nemesis, Peg Leg. When Sister Assumpta discovers their sketchbook, the boys plot their revenge in an ambitious scheme that can only end badly.

   Meanwhile, Francis is experiencing first love, tentatively pursuing a relationship with Margie (Jena Malone). That becomes a challenge when Margie's innocence is called into question, and her eventual confession surpasses even Francis' worst fears. But despite Sister Assumpta's estimation otherwise, Francis embodies the very essence of what it means to be Catholic, loving Margie unconditionally.

   The character of Francis, portrayed by newcomer Hirsch in an effortlessly natural performance, is perhaps the most sensitively drawn teenager in recent memory. He doesn't hem and haw about whether he should forgive Margie--he just does. And he goes along with Tim's ridiculous plan, instinctively knowing that it will provide his friend, who is not talented enough to contribute to their comic book, with his own accomplishment.

   McFarlane's animated sequences are a revelation as a storytelling technique, not only mirroring the boys' inner fantasies but paralleling events in their real lives, adding heroic overtones. But while the relationships between the live-action and cartoon scenes are clear, the transitions between them are a bit jarring, requiring a moment to readjust and recall where the previous narrative last left off. Still, what would have otherwise been a routine nostalgic coming-of-ager takes on a new, innovative form. Starring Emile Hirsch, Jena Malone, Kieran Culkin, Jodie Foster and Vincent D'Onofrio. Directed by Peter Care. Written by Jeff Stockwell. Produced by Meg LeFauve, Jay Shapiro and Jodie Foster. A ThinkFilm release. Comedy/drama. Rated R for language, sexual content and youth substance abuse. Running time: 110 min

Tags: Starring Emile Hirsch, Jena Malone, Kieran Culkin, Jodie Foster and Vincent D'Onofrio. Directed by Peter Care. Written by Jeff Stockwell, Produced by Meg LeFauve, Jay Shapiro, Jodie Foster, ThinkFilm, Comedy drama

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