The Dangerous Lives of Altar Boys
review by Carrie Gorringe, 21 June 2002

28th Seattle International Film Festival

With the Catholic Church currently facing landmark sexual-abuse lawsuits, it might have seemed somewhat inappropriate to release a film with the provocative title, The Dangerous Lives of Altar Boys, but this story, adapted from Chris Fuhrman's first and only novel, explores different issues. Set in the early 70's, Dangerous revolves around a group of boys led by Tim Sullivan (Kieran Culkin) and his ever-loyal friend Francis Doyle (Emile Hirsch). The boys, possessing considerable talent, illustrate their own comic books, under the title of "Atomic Trilogy," with three superheroes who fight off the vicious villain "Nun-Zilla". The source of their creativity is clear-cut: both Tim and Francis are caught within Catholic families that are both emotionally repressed and perilously close to collapse. Moreover, they must deal with their own "nun-zilla", Sister Assumpta: (Jodie Foster, in a performance so excessively mannered that it borders upon inadvertent parody), who seems to take an absolute (if perhaps unrealized) delight in denying her charges any sort of pleasure under the guise that it will corrupt their souls. Caught between both impenetrable worlds, in an era in which moral guidance was a difficult, if not impossible, concept to define, the boys retreat into their own private existence, and plot to pull off a daring raid that will raise their status with their fellow students. Tim and Francis soon discover, however, that the line between derring-do and risk may be as ambiguously defined as everything else in their lives.

As the center of the piece Culkin and especially Hirsch give evocative performances that honestly capture the fact that, underneath all their bravado, lies two children crying out for acceptance and guidance. The animated sequences (brilliantly crafted by Todd McFarlane, he of the comic-book series, Spawn) that punctuate the main action are powerful, and accurately breathe life into the boys' comic-book images, acting as the boys' alter egos -- a counterpart to their impotence within their own lives. Director Peter Case sensitively encapsulates the contradictory elements within Tim and Francis' lives -- their first loves, their triumphs and miseries -- and displays them in a form that doesn't dismiss their struggles as simply the insubstantial whining of "typical" teenagers. Case evokes a version of the past that has the feel of authenticity about it. Although the film treats the tragi-comic elements of the boys' relationship with tenderness, the film is not an exercise in nostalgia; the harsh effects of reality that can limit Tim and Francis' dreams are never far away. The film also works because it doesn't treat the other elements of the boys' world as mere ciphers: it's clear that everyone and everything else, from parents to the Catholic church itself, is struggling to do the right thing even if, like the boys themselves, the solutions aren't always clear or the outcomes inappropriate and/or inadequate. This two-pronged approach places Dangerous far above other films in the "coming of age" film genre.

Seattle International Film Festival Coverage:




Directed by:


Written by:






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