Can’t you just hear the pitch meeting for The Dangerous Lives of Altar Boys? “See, it’s about these four Catholic school boys coming of age and confronting mortality. But it’s set in the 1970s, so there’s a nostalgia angle. It’s Stand By Me, but with cassocks. One of the boys is the Wil Wheaton sensitive artist storyteller type, and his best friend is the crazy troublemaker—River Phoenix crossed with Corey Feldman. Trust me, it’s gold, baby.”
Nice stuff for marketing to work with, but useless when it comes to thinking about the films in question. Stand By Me, for all its soundtrack-fueled, golden-hued appeal, wasn’t even on a nodding acquaintance with the way real adolescent boys ever talked to each other. It was a coming-of-age story scripted by two guys who wrote like they’d been born in their 30s.
Rare is the film that captures the rhythms of adolescent camaraderie with anything resembling fidelity. Ghost World nailed it with girls, and The Dangerous Lives of Altar Boys nails it with boys. It might even have been a classic of its kind—if only it hadn’t seemed determined to be so freaking weird.
Adapted from a posthumously published novel by Chris Fuhrman, Altar Boys follows its protagonists through a tumultuous year of high school. Would-be artist Francis Doyle (Emile Hirsch), mischief-making Tim Sullivan (Kieran Culkin) and their tagalong pals Wade (Jake Richardson) and Joey (Tyler Long) fantasize about escaping their lives through comic-book adventures, but real life is more complicated. While Francis experiences first love with the mysterious Margie Flynn (Jena Malone), Tim deals with a home life on the verge of collapse. And then there’s just the usual stuff of adolescence: experiments with alcohol, risky pranks and enduring the stone-faced lecturing of Sister Assumpta (Jodie Foster).
Altar Boys’ gaudiest gimmick involves extended animated sequences (supervised by comic-book veteran Todd McFarlane) in which the boys’ superheroic alter egos battle the evil Nunzilla and her wimple-wearing minions. McFarlane’s comic-book world churns with vivid, violent action, but the sequences also uncover the characters’ internal lives. Few films have shown an understanding of comics’ appeal to young boys as empowerment fantasy. This one gets it, and gives it a unique visual intensity in the process.
The animation, however, provides only one piece of evidence for Altar Boys’ keen sense of its teen world. When Francis, Tim and their cohorts converse, it’s in the clipped, profane, insulting shorthand of real 14-year-olds. Furtive swigs of beer and initial youthful fumblings for second base feel urgently authentic. The cast on Tim’s left arm, never remarked upon, provides a constant reminder of his readiness to take chances. While the mostly naturalistic work of the young actors helps tremendously—though Hirsch struggles a bit with wide-eyed emoting—the script by Jeff Stockwell and Michael Petroni gives them dialogue with a smart, catchy simplicity.
Simplicity, unfortunately, proves to be in short supply where the plotting is concerned. From its early minutes of stripped-down perception, The Dangerous Lives of Altar Boys gradually morphs into something so bizarre that the animation sequences start to look positively mundane. A history of incest haunts one character’s family. A ghost appears for a creepy and deeply pointless cameo. Sister Assumpta—wooden leg and all—turns into a cartoon even during the live action sequences. And when it’s time for the big emotional catharsis, one character dies in such an over-the-top manner that your downstairs neighbors will hear your jaw hitting the floor. It’s hard for a funeral oration to get you weepy when you’re still rubbing your eyes wondering, “Good God, did I actually just see that?”
It’s testimony to how much Altar Boys gets right that its insistent strain of perversity doesn’t blow the whole thing to pieces. Director Peter Care delivers his moments of sun-dappled innocence with a hand-held jitteriness that undercuts sentimentality, and the playful sparring of the characters always rings with familiarity. The everyday struggles of boys-to-men can be plenty fascinating when you know how to get them right. Throw in every bit of indie-film quirkiness you can think of, and it’s too easy for a viewer’s head to start spinning. It’s Stand By Me, but with an ear for what’s real—and with incest, a ghost and a one-legged nun.