The Dangerous Lives of Altar Boys

Growing up is hard. The characters in The Dangerous Lives of Altar Boys, adapted from the novel by the late Chris Furman may say that it downright sucks. Dangerous Lives is, at its core, a coming of age story of Francis Doyle (Emile Hirsch, Wild Iris, Houdini). He is like many other boys, balancing his desire for experimentation with newfound things with the stifling sense of repression he feels from some of the people around him. He seeks solace in the world of comics, imagining himself and his friends as buff comic book heroes fighting against his arch nemesis Peg-Leg. Peg Leg represents his teacher, Sister Assumpta (Jodie Foster, Panic Room, Anna and the King).

Although director Peter Care (Blunt Force) nails the adolescent sense of confusion, the story begins to wander around the middle. Care intersperses the actual story with Doyle's imagined comic book reality. Each person has a counterpart in the animated world, drawn under the supervision of Todd McFarlane (the creator of Spawn and the man behind some Korn videos). In this animated world, everything that Francis wishes he could do actually happens. It is a violent, almost fanciful way of looking at his own life, mirroring the events that Francis and his friend Tim Sullivan (Kieran Culkin, The Cider House Rules, Music of the Heart). Tim is the troubled kid that is the bane of Assumpta and Father Casey (Vincent D'Onofrio, Impostor, Happy Accidents). He is always cooking up new devious ways of asserting his independence, which usually means annoying Assumpta and Casey.

When Margie Flynn (Jena Malone, Life as a House, Donnie Darko) enters the picture, the dynamic between Francis and Casey changes. Now, Margie is the barrier between them. Francis wants to spend more time with her, which means he spends less time with Tim. This is especially bad for a particularly heinous plot that Tim is hatching involving a panther, blow darts, and Assumpta's office. Margie reveals a horrible secret to Francis, which confuses him even further. He has enough mixed emotions and hormones flying through his head and body, and this revelation only makes things worse. As events begin to spiral out of control, Care loses the focus on Francis' confusion, and concentrates more on moving the story forward. By shifting away from Francis' inner turmoil, he lessens the effect that the last portion of the movie has on the viewer.

Dangerous Lives marks the film where this younger Culkin finally comes into his own. He and Hirsch give great performances, aided considerably by adapters Michael Petroni (Till Human Voices Wake Us) and Jeff Stockwell. Their script, particularly in the beginning, provides many instances of sarcastic comments from both boys, and many instances of juvenile (and funny) pranks. The script also catpures a spirit of boredom and a latent sense of nihilism, a deadly combination. Foster and D'Onofrio are also good, both going against type. So although Dangerous Lives wavers near the end, it is still fun to watch because of its performances and black humor.

Mongoose Rates It: Not Bad.
1 hour, 45 minutes, Rated R for language, sexual content and youth substance abuse.

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