Once upon a time, life was nasty, brutish, and short. Adolescence,
as the social adjustment period we know and either love or
loathe, didn't exist. Any 14-year-old was likely already shouldering
an adult load, for reasons of mere subsistence. That's why
tales like this one find a more sympathetic audience in the
last few decades than at any other time in history. You have
to have time on your hands to pursue the absurd pastimes the
heroes of The Dangerous Lives Of Altar Boys take on.
Led by the charismatic Tim (Culkin), a quartet of
Catholic school fanboys aspire to greatness by composing their
own lurid, vaguely obscene comic book. The fab foursome use
their art to lampoon parochial education in general and to
express their vehement dislike of Sister Assumpta (Foster)
and equally vehement disdain for Father Casey (D'Onofrio)
in particular. When the offhand slighting of another student
causes their magnum opus to fall into the hands of the enemy,
Tim invents a mission that will divert attention from their
misdeeds as well as exact revenge on Sister Assumpta.
This is really the story of Francis (Hirsch), Tim's
best buddy. Francis, in the pangs of first love with Margie
(Malone), knows he's grown past Tim's inventive adventures,
but hangs in there anyway out of fondness for Tim and nostalgia
for less-complicated times. There's honest, realistic depiction
of tentative first romance, plus a rather horrific, "real"
adult secret. Like Glendon Swarthout's Bless The
Beasts And Children, this is a story of young, misfit
knights-errant on a modern-day quest, and like Swarthout's
tale, one of them tragically dies.
The novel, by the late Chris Fuhrman, was set in the
1970s South, and the filmmakers have kept to the time period
without overwhelming their viewers with bell-bottomed funkiness
and psychedelic rock. Colorful í70s-style superhero animation
by Todd McFarlane (Spawn) shows viewers the boys' black-and-white
understanding of the world and the adults around them. Keeping
faithfully to the spirit of the book, the filmmakers have
done justice to Fuhrman's desire to have people "remember
how it was when they were children." I get that Fuhrman
had great love for and admiration of the man-child, but I
think his work actually undermines what he'd hoped to accomplish.
Rather than making me sympathize with these lads, I grew impatient
for their parents to step in and have some place in their
children's lives. These four guys, so savvy about some things
and yet so incredibly childlike about others (like Tim's absurd
plans), validate what every weary middle-school teacher knows:
They're still children.
There are few missteps here. One rather serious one, though,
is the character of Tim. Culkin plays the role gamely, but
he doesn't have nearly enough to work with. The script settles
for telling us that Tim is charismatic, crazy smart, and just
plain different from every other shitkicker in this poky Southern
town, rather than giving him something to do that would show
us. Hirsch is just right in his scenes with Malone, where
he doesnít seem to know how to conduct himself around a girl.
Due to the ages of the actors, the movie is forced to sort
of gloss the sexual situations of the book. The filmmakers
handled this very well, evoking that youthful, desperate,
descent-into-the-maelstrom feeling without baring skin. They
also slyly wink at adult hypocrisy, through a series of funny
scenes involving Father Casey. But where the movie one-ups
the book is in its depiction of Sister Assumpta. Foster's
nun is clearly a whole person, genuinely concerned for the
happiness and spiritual well-being of her charges, not the
one-dimensional harridan presented by Fuhrman.
This sort of movie sets grown men to snuffling into their
popcorn, and could lead many a woman to reflect that, in growing
from boys to men, "they ain't changed all that much."
Still, it is affecting, affectionate, and recommended.