Francis and Tim climb the wall of their school to take a statue of St. Agatha.
The Dangerous Lives of Altar Boys takes us back to the 1970’s and to a small Southern town where we meet two adolescent best friends, Tim Sullivan (Kieran Culkin) and Francis Doyle (Emile Hirsch) who attend St. Agatha’s, the local Catholic parochial school. The title refers to the fact that they are altar boys for Father Casey (Vincent D’Onofrio), the parish priest but has nothing to do with the modern scandals of the church. Along with their friends Wade Scalisi (Jake Richardson) and Joey Anderson (Tyler Long), the boys are the main fomentors of rebellion against authority at the school, which comes in the form of various pranks, mainly planned by Tim. As the film opens, we see Tim and Francis watching as a telephone pole that they have cut with a chainsaw falls down in front of them, perhaps a metaphor for the reckless action that the boys will take throughout the film. The main focus of their wrath falls on Sister Assumpta (Jodie Foster), a strict disciplinarian and teacher at St. Agatha’s, whom they satirize in an elaborate comic book that they collaborate on entitled “The Atomic Trinity”. Each of the boys is a superhero type of character in the comic, with names like “The Muscle” and “Captain Asskicker”, fighting against the villain “Nunzilla”, a complete caricature of Sister Assumpta down to her false leg. “The Atomic Trinity” is represented throughout the film by animated sequences (created in the style of Marvel Comics by Todd McFarlane) that are powerful realizations of the boys’ comic pages.
Francis runs through the grounds of the zoo.
Although Tim is the instigator of the pranks, the comic book, and much of the action, the main point of view in The Dangerous Lives of Altar Boys actually is that of Francis. He is the only character who we actually see at home with a normal family, and his coming of age in this movie also involves a relationship he develops with Margie Flynn (Jena Malone), a young girl whose emerging sexuality involves a dark secret that Francis eventually becomes embroiled in. Their relationship also leads to a brief estrangement with Tim, who needs Francis to help him with his rebellious pranks, and is jealous of the attention that Francis pays to Margie. As the story builds to its climax, Tim’s pranks become more reckless and the school authorities find out about “The Atomic Trinity” leading to serious consequences for the boys. How all of these threads come together makes up the remainder of the film.
Francis and Margie hang out in her room.
The Dangerous Lives of Altar Boys has some similarities to The Basketball Diaries. Both are about boys in a Catholic school who act so recklessly and without thought that they seem unrealistically detached from the parochial environment that they were raised in. Their parents have little influence in their lives, and the main redeeming feature of the boys involves their literary skills — in the case of The Basketball Diaries, Jim’s desire to be a writer, and in this film, the boys’ incrediibly creative comic book “The Atomic Trinity” and their admiration of the work of William Blake, who Sister Assumpta describes as “a dangerous thinker.” In both films, the screenplay doesn’t provide us with any real information as to why these kids have so little sense of identification with their own upbringing and supposed values. And that is really what doesn’t work in these films: the same boys who impetuously drink, smoke, take drugs, and create havoc against the system at the same time have an elegant and thoughtful literary side to their characters that would be a credit to someone twice their age. It just seems that the story line comes more from the interest of the screenwriters to make a literary statement rather than the logical character development of the boys. That said, there are a lot of enjoyable and even comic moments in The Dangerous Lives of Altar Boys. The film is well cast, with the adolescent characters convincingly played by Kieren Culkin, Emile Hirsch, and Jena Malone. It’s too bad that the clergy roles, played by Jodie Foster and Vincent D’Onofrio, are not given an equal chance to show what they really are about, either to gain understanding of why the kids are so rebellious, or to find out why they are so feared or misunderstood. It just seems that screenwriter Jeff Stockwell tries to make too much of the material and the result is overkill. You will definitely be entertained, but not everything is believeable.
Tim, Francis, Wade, and Joey carry off the statue of St. Agatha.
Tim and Francis watch as the telephone pole they just chainsawed falls in front of them.
Emile Hirsch in his role as Francis is seen wearing black high top chucks throughout most of the film, as are his friends played by Jake Richardson and Tyler Long. While there are not a lot of good closeup shots in this film, the best scene is toward the end, when the boys are partying around as they get psyched up for their final prank.
The four friends party around as they anticipate their greatest prank ever.
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