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The Dangerous Lives Of Altar Boys (R)
Official Site
Director: Peter Care
Producers: Jodie Foster, Meg LeFauve, Jay Shapiro
Written by: Jeff Stockwell, from the novel by Chris Fuhrman; animation by Todd McFarlane
Cast: Kieran Culkin, Jena Malone, Emile Hirsch, Vincent D'Onofrio, Jodie Foster

Rating: out of 5

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.

óRoxanne Bogucka

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