The Dangerous Lives of Altar Boys
Directed by Peter Care
(Kieran Culkin, Jena Malone, Emile Hirsch, and Jodie Foster)
The cover of the late Chris Fuhrman’s novel The Dangerous Lives of Altar Boys brazenly disclaims, “Trouble is our only defense against boredom,” and this film adaptation seems hell-bent on obeying the author’s suggestion. Directed by Peter Care and produced by co-star Jodie Foster’s Egg Pictures, Altar Boys loads its narrative about a foursome of 1970s parochial schoolboys (Kieran Culkin as the wise-ass Tim Sullivan and Emile Hirsch as the doe-eyed, sensitive Francis) with enough wacky situations and carefree youth montages to make Mark Twain cringe. But like the novel, published posthumously in 1994, the film’s unsentimental approach rises above the standard clichés so prevalent in modern coming-of-age dramas.
Instead of playing sports or jamming on a guitar, Tim and his pals spend time reading and doodling their own superhero comics, a far more insubordinate distraction in the eyes of the church. Their own creations, which resemble a crossbreeding between the styles of underground auteur R. Crumb and Marvel Comics head honcho Stan Lee, include the unfortunately named Major Screw (his creator, in one of the film’s funniest moments, makes the mistake of explaining the character’s actions: “he goes down on people with his big screw … “).
As an actor and as producer, Foster wisely takes the backseat and lets Culkin and Hirsch’s talents mature in their leading roles. Culkin has just enough edge to play Tim as a genuine troublemaker, the type of kid whose silly antics and fierce anti-authority angst will eventually lead him into genuine danger. As the bane of Tim’s existence, Sister Assumpta, Foster evidences a slight Irish accent and stern piousness, but can only do so much with her stock role and never quite elevates it above a standard Holy Catholic stereotype.
What gels the film’s stagy vignettes ñ including animated sequences by artist Todd McFarlane ñ is screenwriter Jeff Stockwell’s balanced tone, lending a reverence to the boys’ rebelliousness but also a touch of humility to their immaturity. And Hirsch’s short but luminous reading of poet William Blake’s “The Tiger” in the film’s closing moments reminds us of the beauty, destruction, and unyielding questions that surround our lives when we are young.
The Dangerous Lives of Altar Boys opens this Friday.