Movie review, 'The Dangerous Lives of Altar Boys'

MoviesEntertainmentFictionRoman CatholicismJodie FosterChristianityEmile Hirsch

Under the philosophy "serious trouble beats serious boredom," five hell-raising eighth-graders stumble through adolescence at breakneck speed in "The Dangerous Lives of Altar Boys."

Based on author Chris Fuhrman's novel of the same name, director Peter Care's adaptation skates the line between boredom and trouble, exploring the paradoxical limbo of youth and the emotional dangers that fill the cracks of puberty.

Fuhrman himself died of cancer at age 31 while finishing the final revision of "Altar Boys" -- an event that led critics to pair him with John Kennedy Toole, whose "Confederacy of Dunces" also saw print posthumously. Unlike Toole's Pulitzer Prize-winning, novel-length suicide note, Fuhrman's madcap coming-of-age novel provides a more fertile cinematic ground, although it's less socially potent and focused than "Dunces."

Care deftly captures the wonder and menace of growing up, but he never really embraces the joy of Fuhrman's destructive escapism or the grace-in-rebellion found by his characters.

Growing up in 1974, Fuhrman's teen quintet devours a liturgy of Marvel superheroes and horror comics while avoiding crumbling family lives and an oppressive tenure at Blessed Heart Catholic School.

Pensive Francis Doyle (Emile Hirsch) and daredevil Tim Sullivan (Kieran Culkin) provide the nucleus of the group, principal creators of "Atomic Trinity," a violently explicit comic book depicting their superhero alter egos' eternal conflict with Sister Assumpta (Jodie Foster, who also produced the film), the peg-legged matriarch of their Catholic education.

Care sets live-action portions of the film against animated sequences, metaphorically acting out the comic book battles with Assumpta and Francis' fledging romance with schoolmate Margie (Jena Malone). But animator Todd McFarlane's anachronistic cartoons clash with the '70s setting, the modern animation providing unneeded friction in an already struggling film.

The film's thematic sprawl follows the boys' vandalism of school property and Margie's sexual past, and it hints at Sullivan's violent home life, although a dramatic core never fully materializes. At the same time, Assumpta never approaches the evil or iron-fisted fascism required to make her a true antagonist -- the most she does is accidentally rip up one of their books -- making the group's fear and hatred of her unfounded or, at least, a severe overreaction.

An epic prank to kidnap a wildcat from the zoo provides a narrative through line, but Care remains preoccupied with his animated vs. real-life concoction. It's too bad, as his cast delivers a set of strong performances -- particularly the moody Culkin and quivering Malone, although she plays too close to type, picked up in "Donnie Darko."

Care does manage to breathe life back into adolescence, freeze-framing a time in life when, as Fuhrman wrote, "things could still happen for the first time." But the director's lack of restraint and overabundance of ambition makes "Altar Boys" not boring, but troubled.

2 stars
"The Dangerous Lives of Alter Boys"
Directed by Peter Care; screenplay by Jeff Stockwell; photographed by Lance Acord; edited by Chris Peppe; production design by Gideon Ponte; produced by Jodie Foster, Meg LeFauve, Jay Shapiro. A ThinkFilm release; opens Friday, June 21. Running time: 1:45. MPAA rating: R (language, sexual content and youth substance use).
Francis -- Emile Hirsch
Tim -- Kieran Culkin
Sister Assumpta -- Jodie Foster
Margie -- Jena Malone Father Casey -- Vincent D'Onofrio

Robert K. Elder is a Chicago Tribune Staff Writer.

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