The Dangerous Lives Of Altar Boys

2002, Movie, R, 105 mins


Chris Fuhrman, who died of cancer 1991, three years before the publication of his one and only novel, couldn't have asked for a better cast of young actors to bring his bittersweet book to life. The film, adventurously directed by the British documentary and music-video director Peter Care, follows Fuhrman's teenage alter-ego, Francis Doyle (strong newcomer Emile Hirsch), and his very best friend, Tim Sullivan (Kieran Culkin, Macaulay's very talented younger brother), as they attempt to negotiate the perils of adolescence, sex and, most frightening of all, Catholic school. Francis is nursing a serious crush on Margie Flynn (Jena Malone), a troubled classmate who once tried to kill herself. Tim, meanwhile, is the kind of precocious freethinker who's full of crazy schemes and would sooner pore over William Blake's illustrated The Marriage of Heaven and Hell than join his fellow eighth graders in a rendition of "Kumbaya." Like a lot of kids their age, Tim and Francis are passionate about comic books, and together with their friends Joey (Tyler Long) and Wade (Jake Richardson), they're creating a strip of their own: "The Atomic Trinity." The Trinity are actually four superheroes — Captain Asskicker, Major Screw, Brakken and the Muscle — who battle their dreaded nemesis, Peg Leg, a one-legged, chopper-riding nun who bears a striking resemblance to their cruel, ego-crushing geometry teacher, Sister Assumpta (a truly scary Jodie Foster). The boys spend their afternoons at a gone-to-seed local cemetery, smoking cigarettes, drinking pilfered booze and planning out the adventures of the Trinity, until a field trip to a local game preserve gives Tim an idea. Why not kidnap the park's cougar and set it loose in Sister Assumpta's office? It's just one of Tim's typically crazy schemes, but one with unexpectedly tragic consequences. Furhman's book, which has been compared to such coming-of-age classics as J.D. Salinger's Catcher in Rye, is much admired for its unvarnished depiction of adolescence, and Care and screenwriter Jeff Stockwell are careful to remain true to the tone of the book. It's clear that both Tim and Francis come from troubled homes, and Margie, played with surprising maturity by Malone, harbors a terrible secret. There are moments of wonderful insight, but while the booming, fully animated adventures of the Atomic Trinity (by "Spawn" creator Todd McFarlane) that Care intercuts with the live action at first seem a good idea, they ultimately upset the film's carefully established mood. leave a comment --Ken Fox

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