Published Dec 01, 2002Based on Chris Fuhrman's popular novel, The Dangerous Lives of Altar Boys is an honest and compelling coming-of-age story that manages to avoid the usual cheesy and predictable trappings of the genre. Set in the 1970s, the film focuses on a group of Catholic school students striving to rebel against the repressing confines of their school and religion, and beginning to forge the complicated relationships that signal the shift between childhood and adolescence. Francis (Emile Hirsch) is the story's central figure, a dreamy boy whose artistic talents are the driving force behind a comic book that he and his friends create in order to cast themselves as superheroes in a fictional representation of their struggles at school. Tim (Kieran Culkin) is Francis's best friend, a smart troublemaker who leads his friend through a series of increasingly dangerous misadventures designed to wreak havoc on their arch-nemesis one-legged nun/teacher Sister Assumpta (Jodie Foster). Francis quickly finds himself torn between his dedication to Tim and his stunts, and his burgeoning relationship with Margie (Jena Malone), a girl who has a dark secret.
The film depicts the world of youth in a way that suggests the nostalgic prism of adult perspective, making it probably more appealing to the generation who also came of age in the 70s than to teenagers today. Some of the subject matter is decidedly darker than one would expect though, nicely bringing out the seedier elements of adolescent social and sexual behaviour amidst the seemingly idyllic sun-drenched days of youth. In this way, the film sort of resembles The Ice Storm, but without the parental characters. Peter Care's direction intersperses the live action with animation sequences (by Spawn's Todd McFarlane) that give life to Francis's comic book and use the superhero alter-egos of the characters to parallel the film's main story. The trio of young lead actors all give remarkably complex and touching performances, while Jodie Foster give enough humanity to her evil nun to keep her away from caricature and Vincent D'Onofrio actually manages a subtle turn as the school's chain-smoking priest.