The Dangerous Lives of Altar Boys

A Coming-of-Age Tale with Animated Catholic Villains

Catholic high school boys battle adolescent angst while devising pranks against authority figures in the imaginative, entertaining, and heartbreaking film, “The Dangerous Lives of Altar Boys” (ThinkFilm).

This adaptation of the late Chris Fuhrman’s novel, directed by Peter Care, is a 70’s coming-of-age story about best friends Francis (Emile Hirsch) and Tim (Kieran Culkin), who struggle against the strict rules of their critical and moralistic teacher�the one-legged Sister Assumpta (Jodie Foster ).

Francis, a talented sketcher, creates an irreverent cartoon notebook; he depicts Sister Assumpta as Peg Leg, a wicked motorcycle-riding villain who’s out to destroy the boys’ superhero alter egos, Atomic Trinity.

Animated sequences interspersed throughout the movie were cleverly created by Todd McFarlane , and serve as a portal into Francis’ passionate teenage heart.

Meanwhile, there is Francis’ huge crush on Margie (Jena Malone). The innocence of his first-love experience is smashed when she reveals to him her dark secret�something he�s not prepared to handle but must try.

While Sister Assumpta is appalled with her students’ brazen cartoon drawings and statue-stealing shenanigans, she’s clueless as to the real issues lurking underneath.

Francis and Tim are grappling with a confusing torrent of sexual feelings, quarrelling parents, neglect, the issue of incest, and first experiences with alcohol and pot.

Some viewers might be offended at the digs the movie takes at Catholic school upbringing and the religious people who try to teach precocious students. But I think the adult characters are portrayed the way adolescents often see them. At times Francis and Tim don’t know how to keep the weighty secrets they’ve been burdened with, and yet no adult seems trustworthy or smart enough to help.

At one point Francis reaches out for adult assistance and attempts to talk to Father Casey (Vincent D’Onofrio) about sex and the secret he’s carrying. But the obviously nervous priest skirts the issue by giving pat advice. He counsels Francis to remember his faith, not give into temptation, and say the Lord’s Prayer.

It’s no wonder that in a later scene Francis reads a poem by William Blake and wonders whether God cares about him or other young people personally.

The film depicts our vulnerabilities as a Catholic culture�secrecy, shame, discomfort in talking about sex, and the subsequent abuse that goes on when we can’t deal with such matters openly and directly.

Given what we’re going through today as a Catholic community with the revelations of church-hidden sex scandals, I found it interesting to view this film from the point of view of Catholic boys.

But at times it’s frustrating that we, the viewers, don’t get the whole picture. The layers of Margie’s secret are revealed slowly and incompletely. And there’s some underlying reason why Tim’s daredevil antics cross the line from boyhood mischief to serious danger, but we never get the full picture of why.

And yet, that’s a part of our Catholic culture�secrets partially revealed that leave us still wondering what and why.

It’s good that these days we’re questioning how well or how poorly that’s served us.

Yet one thing is clear. In the style of “Angela’s Ashes,” and “Chocolat,” our Catholic foibles make for creative, engaging, and deeply emotional storytelling. “Altar Boys” fits right in.

(The Motion Picture Association of America rating is R-restricted. The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops classification is A-IV – adults with reservations.)