There are some movies out there that really didn’t mean to seem as silly as they ended up seeming. Good intentions do not only pave the road to Hell, but they can also be the downfall of an overzealous screenwriter. In this case we have two screenwriters, Jeff Stockwell and Michael Petroni. The Dangerous Lives of Altar Boys lacks most shreds of believability due to the upmost good intentions that the writers obviously wanted to implement in the story. This is a film that wants to cover some heavy material and say some important things. Sadly, it is just too much for the young cast and inexperienced director to handle. There is no emotional payoff in the film because the climax, dialogue and character behavior is so unrealistic that it halts any real compassion from the audience. It is made clear that everyone involved tried their best to make a meaningful teen drama. They didn’t…
The Dangerous Lives of Altar Boys follows the childhood rebellion of four Catholic school boys in the 1970s. They, like so many other Catholic school children, hate their strict teacher and constantly plot against her. I have been a young boy in school before. That is pretty much what we do. A boy’s life is a constant fantasy about how they’re gonna take down a person who’s wronged them. Well, at least to a point. When a boy reaches a certain age, the only freakin’ thing he will think about is sex. And that plays a major part in the movie. As do drugs, violence, cigarettes and cuss words. All of these seem like pretty normal adolescent things – but the way the characters introduce, act and react to these normal things is abnormal. Realism is a victim to adding the edge to certain characters.
And the characters who hurt the most are the two leading young men, Emile Hirsch and Kieran Culkin. They play tortured teenage intellectuals who would rather get into trouble than be bored. Culkin’s character, Tim Sullivan, is presented as a Holden Caulfield-type, but he nestles in our memory as more of a silhouette. Hirsch plays the protagonist in the movie (if there is one) named Francis Doyle. Hirsch is a much better actor than Culkin, and it is pretty awkward to see/hear them interact. Doyle is a character that seems more curious than confident. Tim is the polar opposite. He is dangerous and sometimes stupid. He reads Robert Blake and spouts it as if he himself wrote the flowing words. When I was a teenager it was Edgar Allen Poe. I can still do the entire “The Raven” without missing a line.
Francis, Tim and their two other friends scratch a notebook-paper comic book called “The Atomic Trinity” in which they all have superpowers and fight the disenfranchising Nunzilla (symbolizing their teacher). In some scenes we see the comic come to life with visually enthralling animated action sequences meant to help symbolically push the story. These are my favorite moments in The Dangerous Lives of Altar Boys because they do not try to beat anything over your head with realistic melodrama. As long as the film is not a fantasy, which Altar Boys is not, a filmmaker can get away with so much more using animation. If I had any issue with these scenes it would be that there were not enough of them, and that the snaps back to live-action reality happened too quickly.
But I have sort of strayed from my original point; The Dangerous Lives of Altar Boys merely has hands in too many fires. Francis has idealistic feelings toward a classmate named Margie, played by the undervalued Jena Malone, and they eventually do end up becoming quite the adorable couple. I write another blog on this website and I recently wrote about my favorite movie kisses. Jena Malone is a great kisser in movies. I couldn’t decide whether to include Margie and Francis’ first kiss, or her kiss with Jake Gyllenhall from DonnieDarko. I eventually went with the latter.
Through love, Malone can show depths of suffering, pain and emotional turmoil that is unmatched by most actresses her age – especially at her age in the film. Though it has been well documented that I have a bit of a crush on Ms. Malone, I do not mean to over-hype her character. Margie is, at first, the closest to a real person the audience sees in the film. And then, as is the curse of Altar Boys, she reveals an awful secret that drops the floor out from under the entire movie to that point.
What I like most about The Dangerous Lives of Altar Boys is that it closely examines the role of sex in a way that we do not normally see with teenagers. Countless movies have been made about how teenagers want to have it, but very rarely does an audience get to see how sex impacts people differently. The boys are obviously really horny. They want to get some – including Francis. But when Margie reveals her horrendous secret, he is mortified. For Margie, sex is not something that is just fun to have. Rather, it has greatly impacted who she is and how she ranks her personal self-worth. Sex is a complicated thing, at the very least Altar Boys does not dumb it down – which is potentially how the MPAA arrived at an R rating.
The biggest issue I have with the film is the climax. The boys decide to drug a cougar, steal it from the zoo and trap it their teacher’s office. Of course, this is with the goal of getting her killed. Dudewat? I watched an entire “coming of age tale” where the screenplay threw everything from ghosts to animated poop in my face in an effort to make the lead characters look like tortured intellectuals and THAT is their final scheme?! After being emotionally exhausted from attempting to feel everything the film wanted me to feel, the payoff is a dud. I won’t spoil the ending, but I promise you won’t care by the time you get there. You can only invest so much in fictional characters.
This is a hard movie for me to review. I want to like it a lot. I appreciate its ambition and originality. It has a good heart. The Dangerous Lives of Altar Boys simply tries to climb too many mountains. It needed to focus more on the climb and less about what's waiting on the other side. Sometimes the best advice a person can give comes right out of a Miley Cyrus song….
The Dangerous Lives of Altar Boys: C-