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For some reason, people kind of look at me funny whenever I make mention of the title of this film. I guess it has something to do with the connotation that has come from multiple scandals involving Catholic priests and the younger boys involved in the church. But I assure you, this film does not involve any subplots regarding Paedophelia within the clergy. It's merely a decent little independent (dare I say it...) coming-of-age film about a group of Catholic School students.
Set somewhere about 18-25 years ago (it's hard to say -- most reviewers assume 'sometime in the '70s' but there's a couple of things that would be anachronisms were that the case (G.I.Joe comic books came out in 1983, and I'm pretty sure Cherry NyQuil was an '80s invention as well) in a small town somewhere in the south (again, reviewers say Savannah, but it doesn't really look like Savannah, and was filmed in North Carolina, so I'll just put it in fantasymovieland), THE DANGEROUS LIVES OF ALTAR BOYS is the latest movie I've witnessed with a pretty solid comic book tie-in. 2002 has been quite a year for those. Of course, I reviewed COMIC BOOK VILLAINS just a couple days ago, and the number of movies based on comics themselves has grown quite a bit in the last few years (X-MEN, SPIDER-MAN, and THE HULK, to name a few.) In this case, we get a fairly original way to tie things to the comic book world. Our lead character, Francis, happens to have a talent for creating comic books. He and his friends each have comic book personas they create for themselves and collectively dub "The Atomic Trinity". As the story plays out, Francis parallels his experiences with a comic book fantasy, which comes to life through beautifully animated sequences courtesy of "Spawn" creator Todd McFarlane.
The boys are quite good at finding mischeif. In a prank one night, they boys steal a statue from atop the church, which leads to a lot of finger-pointing by their superiors. Like many boys his age, Francis has been smitten by a young lady, a schoolmate by the name of Margie. Francis is timid in her presence, until the one afternoon he finds a little liquid courage, and begins a puppy-love romance with her. This strains his relationship with closest friend Tim for a while. Eventually, Francis' relationship with Margie gets clouded as she reveals some pretty heavy secrets to him. In time, the boys' comic drawings, which have sacrilegious tones and target the authority figures in the school. This gets the boys expelled, so they go through with a complex plan involving a mountain lion that they've been planning since the beginning of the film.
The animated sequences are the film's most original and strongest point. They help to take this film from an average adolescent drama to something much more. The film also has the benefit of some strong performances. Emile Hirsch, who plays our lead character Francis, does a great job with what he's given here. Any guy who has ever been thirteen years old will easily identify with Francis' emotional roller coaster ride as he discovers things about life and the people that occupy it. Kieran Culkan is fantastic as Tim, although he's covering familiar territory here. My only complaint with his character was that they every time they began to give him a third dimension, he would drift back into the background. It was hard to tell at first who the star of the film was. Jena Malone does a great job of portraying Francis' object of affection Margie, bringing a real human element to the role. Vincent D'Onofrio and Jodie Foster fill out roles of the school's out-of-place priest and crippled nun, respectively. Both are minor roles, but are played well.
However, the film does seem to suffer on the level that it may be told from too "adult" a perspective. For instance, part of the story's theme relates to Tim's fascination for the work of William Blake. I guess it's not conceivable that someone of that age would be interested in Blake's work, but the fact that several other characters are quite familiar with his work and Sister Assumpta (Foster) barely bats an eye when she discovers it seems a bit much. There's also the secrets that Margie lay upon Francis. They're quite a burden to bear, and almost seem like too much for someone his age to handle as well as he does. And then there's the mountain lion subplot. Oh, the mountain lion subplot. Something that should have been dropped after some initial discussion. The whole thing winds up going way too far and results in an "emotional" climax that frankly was more of a "What the Fuck" moment than anything else. I mean, just the fact that a bunch of 14-year-olds are attempting to pull off something of this magnitude lessens the effect when it eventually turns to tragedy. The film is of course based on a novel by Chris Fuhrman, and this may be a fault based in the original literary work, but since I never read the novel I have no assume how accurately the story is transferred to the film. So yeah, the film is flawed. But it's still an enjoyable package in the long run.
I recommend this film, but it's not going to be for everyone. I think overall, it's going to appeal to males more than females, only because as a tale of adolescent emotion, it rings very true to life for males. No, it's not a brilliant work of art, but it it's not a bad way to waste an hour and a half. Not one that will have you dwelling on things for days afterward, but not completely mindless either. It kind of reminded me of OUTSIDE PROVIDENCE, except without the suck factor.
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