Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art

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PostPosted: Sat Mar 08, 2003 3:06 pm 
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The name is all too apt

The lives of altar boys certainly are dangerous! The title of this movie based on an autobiographical novel set in the 'Seventies turns out to be truer than one would ever have imagined. There is this contrast between the innocence of 'Seventies Catholic school students and the heavy stuff that happens to them. But these disasters all take place outside the church and parochial school that loom over the young boys and girls glimpsed in 'Dangerous Lives of Altar Boys.'

Somehow I'd gotten the naïve impression that this movie would be lighthearted fun. Instead, I left somewhat shaken and rather disconcerted because some pretty serious emotions were aroused - without being fully dealt with. Young Francis' life - not unusual for an adolescent boy - is pretty much a non-stop downer even when he gets the girl of his dreams. There are few payoffs and few laughs and the ending is tragic.

The movie nonetheless has its own discreet charms. The dialogue is impressively real from the very first. These kids don't talk like adults or like hip John Hughes cuties; they talk like what they're supposed to be: fourteen-year-olds. When the four boys get together to plan a comic strip or a prank, magic doesn't necessarily happen. I liked the fact that the filmmakers were willing to let events be as anticlimactic as real boys' lives usually are. And the whole conception of a band of young troublemakers in eighth grade and their outrageous projects to get revenge against a nun who has seized their self-created comic book is a delightful one.

On the other hand, the story doesn't exactly show kids just confronting everyday kid stuff. When young Francis Doyle (Emile Hirsch) gets close to his girlfriend, she reveals an ugly secret far more extreme than anything most kids would ever have to deal with, and what happens to Francis' best friend is a romantic-tragic fantasy of still greater extremes, something that really requires a whole other movie, not just a quick finale. In neither case does the film thoroughly process the issues it has raised. I wanted to go back and reread S.E. Hinton to see kids' serious problems confronted and dealt with in a mature but youth-friendly way. Perhaps because of the Catholic milieu, events are framed in overly lurid colors. True, these are nicely absorbed into the imaginary Todd McFarlane animations that grow out of the boys' project to conceive a trinity of supermen based on themselves. This animated element is an original touch, one that, in theory anyway, parallels the overactive imaginations and busy hormones of young boys - but it's an idea that's not worked out in complete enough detail. I was intrigued by the way the good and evil figures of the animations somehow also fit into the references to William Blake and his 'Marriage of Heaven and Hell' - there's some thoughtful writing lying behind the screenplay - but ultimately the animations neither develop completely enough on their own nor parallel the actual events closely enough to provide commentary. Interesting though they are, they seem a bit tacked on, and in fact they were added late in the making of the movie. We're talking about serious structural flaws, here.

On the other hand, Emile Hirsch and Jena Malone, as the principal boy and his girlfriend, both give fine quiet performances without a wrong note. Their lovemaking scenes are sweet and touching and surprisingly intimate for fourteen-year-olds (what would the Legion of Decency say?). Kieran Culkin has presence and intensity as Francis' best friend Tim. The other boys are not as well differentiated as the minor characters are in 'Stand by Me' or 'L.I.E.' or 'The Virgin Suicides,' though, and while Vincent d'Onofrio and Jodie Foster are smooth and competent, they add nothing remarkable to the movie. Foster (Sister Assumpta) in particular is disappointing, providing a kind of one-note intensity and no subtlety at all. It's true that she has wooden material to deal with, playing a classic repressive nun with little to do but snap at the boys and punish them; somehow the screenplay doesn't give her enough real substance. Nevertheless, there is a whole world of menace and kinkiness behind even the most generic idea of a repressive nun that Foster could have tapped but didn't. Her performance is pushed. D'Onofrio is a pleasant kind of foil, the easy-going, unpretentious priest - but this is surprisingly uninteresting work from an actor of of D'Onofrio's originality and talent. Why, by the way, are there just one priest and one nun? And why do we learn almost nothing about Francis and Tim's families? First time director Britisher Peter Care deserves credit for nowhere giving away his music video background, and seeing the movie has made me want to read the late Chris Fuhrman's book. But I went away disturbed, not enthralled.

July 2, 2002

©Chris Knipp 2002

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