As I sat down to write this review, I found myself struggling for the right words, which is a little unusual. I think the reason why it was so difficult to adequately put my feelings into words was probably due to the depth and complexity of this film. When something brings out so many emotions, with such brutal honesty, it's hard to write a casual "Oh, it was a cool flick"-type of review. This film deals with many serious issues, interwoven with some not-so-serious issues, and ends up in a film whose impact will, I think, stay with me for a long time. It was entertaining, it was thought provoking, it was surprising, it was shocking, it was horrifying, and it was very emotionally engaging. This is significantly different from most of the other films I've seen in the last few years, and made for a very satisfying movie-going experience.
In other words, this film was a very pleasant surprise.
The Dangerous Lives of Altar Boys tells the tale of four teenage friends who attend a private catholic school, set in North Carolina in the 1970's. The story revolves around the foursome, their dreams and aspirations of making a comic book of the superheroes each one mentally and emotionally embodies, and casting the nun at their school, Sister Assumpta, as the villain. They pull all sorts of pranks, engage in antics that place them under intense scrutiny and superstition, but the real story isn't the foursome versus their authority figures. The real story is the love story, a story of innocence found, lost and perhaps found again. (George Lucas should take notes.)
One of the most striking things is that, for a period film, Dangerous Lives of Altar Boys doesn't hit you in the face with its setting. The cars and the bicycles are the only things that really gave away a specific feeling of era, and then only subtly, given no more emphasis than they would be if you were watching a city street in '72. Another is the notable lack of "Hollywood sensitivities" in the film. There are no slick, predictable lines, no witty, time-worn banter, no cliché teen angst misgivings. Everything that happens in the film feels real, even the most extreme subplot seems somehow plausible, based on what we have learned of the characters by the time it occurs. And then, of course, there's Todd McFarlane's animation, but let's wait on that for a bit.
Kieran Culkin, who plays Tim Sullivan, is given top billing due to his Culkin heritage, but his character is more prime catalyst than leading part. The true top billing of this film goes to relative newcomer Emile Hirsch and young veteran actress Jena Malone, as Francis Doyle and Margie Flynn. Their relationship is the redemption of the film, the part that you look back on and feel a sincere appreciation for. Arguably the most horrific revelation in the film is part of this storyline, and it is handled, like the rest of the film, bluntly, honestly and realistically, told through 15-year old eyes instead of by a Hollywood "child-adult".
Tim and Francis's other cohorts in crime, and members 3 and 4 of the "The Atomic Trinity" (trust me, that's right) are Jake Richardson and Tyler Long, who play Wade Scalisi and Joey Anderson respectively. Although tangential characters for the 2nd act, they come back for the big finale, cementing their friendship with the two main characters. Vincent D'Onofrio plays Father Casey, a cigarette-smoking priest who seems ill-at-ease with dispensing any actual guidance, although his heart seems to be in the right place.
Jodie Foster plays Sister Assumpta, the only nun shown at St. Agatha's school, and the bane of the real-life Atomic Trinity. It is momentarily difficult to accept Jodie Foster as such a severe character, but only until the first scene she is in truly begins. Although I was always conscious of her being Jodie Foster, that did not detract from my ability to accept her as Assumpta, who truly cares for her students. At one point, she tells D'Onofrio that they are her children, but seems unable to be that directly caring with the students themselves. Only at the very end does she exhibit behavior that cements her caring side, and then it is emphasized more through what she does not say than what she does.
And now, Todd McFarlane. The creator of Spawn, and one of the most consistently talented and dark animators brings the perfect touch to the comic-book sequences. These are beautiful to see, but not only are they visually striking, they allow the audience to peer into the emotions of four teenage boys. Through the events in the comic-book Francis draws and writes, we are able to see the relationships between the four, the loss, the betrayal, the love, the hope, the fear and ultimately the acceptance. These four teenage boys are not gushing, romanticized parables of the "emancipated young man", they are real, and thus keep their emotions bottled up 99% of the time. Only in the animated sequences are we allowed to glimpse the feelings that society insists young men never show. Think of it as plot exposition without all the clumsy, ham-fisted techniques usually seen in film. These are done eloquently, carefully, deliberately and with an incredibly masterful style that will actually leave you not remembering the animation over the live-action, as has happened in so many badly-done meldings before.
I give this a deeply satisfied A. The film is rated R, so this isn't for kids, regardless of the apparent subject matter. If you remember what it was like to be 15, however, especially if you were that age in the 70's, you owe it to yourself to see this film. Even if you don't, or weren't, this film deserves your patronage, if for no other reason than to encourage other independent filmmakers to give us their stories, their real stories, so we have an alternative to what we're usually fed.