The Dangerous Lives of Altar Boys (2001) Movie Review

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Title: The Dangerous Lives of Altar
Year: 2002
Genre: Comedy/Drama
Play time: 1h 44min
Director: Peter Care
Screenwriters: Jeff Stockwell
Starring: Kurt Russell, Kelly Preston, Michael Angarano, Jodie Foster, Emile Hirsch

    “When I look at you… I can hardly breathe.”

The Dangerous Lives of Altar Boys is composed almost entirely of familiar elements, a coming-of-age story revolving around a Catholic school, where sexual repression and domineering nuns abound. But it sings like great films do, jumping off the screen with moments of stunning originality and devastating authenticity. It captures more than a series of events or even a series of characters; it gets the spirit of adolescence exactly right, turning a story about bored schoolkids looking for trouble into something that really strikes a chord, something that stays with you long after it’s over. And it doesn’t much matter, it turns out, that similar tales have been told before.

Can The Dangerous Lives of Altar Boys Subject be Summed Up? What is About?

There isn’t much of a story at that. There are significant events and a series of conflicts, but nothing that can neatly be summed up in a sentence, or even a paragraph. It concerns a group of young teenagers under the supervision of uptight nun/schoolmarm Sister Assumpta (Jodie Foster). Tim Sullivan (Kieran Culkin) is a real-life, if smarter, Bart Simpson, relieving his boredom by creating potential danger for himself and his friends whereever he can manage it. His best friend Francis (Emile Hirsch) is a lover, not a fighter, and the object of his affection is Margie (Jena Malone) who is adventuresome but reserved. Together with three other friends, they occasionally escape into a comic book fantasy world of their own creation, based on drawings they sketch mainly during Sister Assumpta’s lectures.

But in this boring bliss of upper-class suburbia, everything isn’t as simple as it seems. Margie has secrets. Tim may have a few too many tricks up his sleeve, plotting to first steal a beloved school statue, then a live jaguar. Assumpta lurks at the edges of the frame, threatening to bust them. And some friendships may not survive the year.

In what is a brilliantly original masterstroke by first-time feature director Peter Care, The Dangerous Lives of Altar Boys is peppered with animated interludes in which the film’s plot is transferred in the characters’ imaginations to a grand superhero scale. The sequences escalate in drama and importance, exaggerating the events transpiring on screen and leading the movie to its powerful, moving conclusion. The movie is written so thoughtfully that the device never seems like a gimmick, and the brief episodes avoid the obvious, accentuating the action instead of beating it into the ground.

Like Ghost World, the film is about teenagers but is by no means a “teen movie.” It’s rated R, which allows for the boys’ candor to be relatively uncensored, but rather than providing gratuitous shocks through their vernacular, it strives for, and attains, a kind of nostalgic authenticity. You never think that you might meet these fourteen year-olds on the street, but it may evoke reflections of your own adolescence. It doesn’t aim for every realistic detail (though there are fun details aplenty), instead achieving a mood, a spirit, a hypnotic aura of a very distinctive, very potent setting.

Catchy Title to Plunge into Bitter Social Commentary

The title will inevitably be an attention-grabber, considering the raging conflict regarding child molestation by disturbed priests. But the movie, filmed long before the controversy even began to surface, is much too smart for such cheap irony. While there are hints of reproach softballed at the Catholic Church, in the end The Dangerous Lives of Altar Boys puts the priest (Vincent D’Onofrio) and the nun in a compassionate light. Things happen in the plot that would tempt any screenwriter to start slinging blame, but the movie is too careful, too in love with its characters to plunge into bitter social commentary.

I have a lot of objective admiration for this film, but even more importantly, I connected with it. It spoke to me. Everything, from the farfetched pranks Mr. Sullivan plans to the remarkably tender romance between Margie and Francis, felt right, felt genuine. I even bought Margie’s Big Revelation, which may have seemed sensationalist in any other movie. The Dangerous Lives of Altar Boys is a small masterpiece that, if pitched right, could make a lot of careers.

Reporting/Scouting for screenings. Fan of trailers.

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