the dangerous lives of altar boys (2002)


director: peter care

emile hirsch, kieran culkin, jena malone, jodie foster

There’s a flippant but mostly accurate saying that, of all the arts, the one movies share the most with isn’t literature, or theatre, or painting, but comic books. Director Peter Care tries to bring these close cousins together in The Dangerous Lives of Altar Boys, and reminds us - accidentally but thankfully - that movies will always be a superior form of storytelling to a certain kind of comic book.

Set in the moral swamp of the 1970s, the story of Francis (Emile Hirsch) and Tim (Kieran Culkin) is hardly unique - two bright and creative boys rebelling against the supposedly harsh and unjust discipline of a Catholic school, personified by the sinister, peg-legged Sister Assumpta (Jodie Foster, bringing her full repertoire of thin-lipped, unblinking acting style into play.)

Francis and Tim have an active fantasy life based on superhero comics, which take on a life of their own, launching full animated sequences that are supposed to parallel the real-life storyline. Francis is also exploring a new facet of his life with Margie, a pretty classmate with the kind of dark sexual secret that thrives in any story set in the 70s. Not surprisingly, he’s being subtly forced to choose between his old friend and his new girlfriend, a choice that, rather unoriginally, is meant as one between an immature worldview of heroes and villains, and a more mature, compromised, but realistic one.

The animated sequences, by comic book auteur Todd McFarlane, are tedious and trite, distilled from the most overblown and graceless aspects of “classic” Marvel/DC comic art. As Tim, Kieran Culkin does a fantastic job of portraying the kind of melodramatic, even paranoid, yet charismatic boy who’d find this gruesome, operatic world more compelling than any other. As Margie, Jena Malone is just as good, full of the morbid hothouse sexuality of certain young girls, exactly the kind of thing that would attract a boy like Francis.

For some reason, the 70s have become the cinematic equivalent of a free-fire zone, a place of purely gray ethical shades, just far enough in the past and recognizably not today, where teenagers can act with minimal parental interference. The tragedy that overwhelms Tim, Francis and Margie leaves the survivors apparently mostly unscathed, prepared to absorb their trauma without apparent consequence. It’s quite a bit forced, unsatisfying and false, and shares more with comic books than with any version of life as we know it.