The Dangerous Lives of Altar Boys
review by Paula Nechak, 21 June 2002

28th Seattle International Film Festival

Jodie Foster's name might lend initial wattage and weight to this coming-of-age drama directed by Peter Care, but don't be fooled.

In The Dangerous Lives of Altar Boys Foster's company, Egg Pictures, warrants a producer's credit and yes, that is the actress in a small yet crucial role as a one-legged nun named Sister Assumpta.

But the brunt of the film rests in the hands of a troupe of rising young actors, including Kieran Culkin, Emile Hirsch and Jena Malone, who star in this odd 70s-based rite-of-passage drama hobbled by a grasp that far exceeds its precious reach.

It's the kind of drama that strives to examine the universal experience but is limited by its quirks (the boys read William Blake, find symmetry with a zoo cougar after reading "Tyger, tyger burning bright...") and rather specialized milieu and while specificity often  does make for universality, here it feels shoddy and badly crafted instead.

It may be that director Peter Care's background in music video disallows for the cohesion and deft touch and detail that is needed in a story about the confusion and pain that surround the delicate issues of youthful sexual initiation, parental fighting and neglect, empowerment and incest.

Best friends Tim Sullivan (Culkin) and Francis Doyle (Hirsch) are introduced to us as they prepare to chain saw an old telephone pole, measuring precisely with a triangle the scope of its fall and the exact spot of its landing. We immediately understand the relationship - Francis is the artistic follower and Tim is the rebellious ringleader. Together they can face the world; apart, their fragility is all too apparent.

Their tight knit bond is tested when Francis falls for Margie Doyle (Malone), a girl with injury in her eyes. Tim and the gang tease Francis but his crush refuses to subside and he forms a friendship with Margie that gives him his first taste of real physical intimacy and also ferrets out a secret that is the basis for her private pain.

Complicate these quiet and sensitive issues with a Catholic school upbringing, overseen by strict Sister Assumpta (Foster), who preaches religion and dogma and yet may have more understanding of their teen torments than she lets on, and the ground is set for upheaval and desperate acts which lead to tragedy.

Culkin, combining his turn in the recent Igby Goes Down, is making his mark as the tough and troubled, Salinger-esque kid who wants freedom but hasn't the wherewithall to handle it and he could sleepwalk his way through, while Hirsch has a more weighty and difficult part in that he must convey what he sees, as sidekick to a friend whose character is all action and little introspection, and act as our moral compass as well.

And Hirsch, with his dark, liquid eyes, is quite good. But nearly everything else is handled clumsily. It's the silences in this brooding film that mean the most and instead of allowing for them, Care fills them up with images of superhero comic book characters, drawn by the boys, patterned upon themselves and called the Atomic Trinity, to relay the subtext. It might have been a clever segue tool in the book upon which the film is based, but here it's startling, as is the loathing for Sister Assumpta that the boys feel.

If the point of the film is subversion - to challenge the worth and impact of Catholicism on their young lives - and measure how they chafe against its moral constraints, well, it's also badly represented. In fact this is a movie that misses almost all of its many opportunities. What's left is an unremarkable effort that, on its edges, emits hints of the possibilities that were left behind. But as soon as it touches upon them, it drifts into something else, something that is merely comfortable and less frightening, and instead of the anarchic movie it wishes to be, is all posture and pose instead.

Seattle International Film Festival Coverage:




Directed by:


Written by:






  Copyright 1996-2005 by Nitrate Productions, Inc. All Rights Reserved.