The Dangerous Lives of Altar Boys
Director: Peter Care. Cast: émile Hirsch, Kieran Culkin, Jena Malone, Jodie Foster, Vincent D'Onofrio, Jake Richardson, Tyler Long, Arthur Bridgers. Screenplay: Jeff Stockwell and Michael Petroni (based on the novel by Chris Fuhrman).

As of mid-September, the best American film of the year is The Dangerous Lives of Altar Boys, a first-time outing for director Peter Care that surpasses in insight, originality, and entertainment most of the recent cinema it calls to mind. Its closest companion text among contemporary American movies is probably Ang Lee's The Ice Storm, a more muted film that struggled to navigate between the twin shoals of the pretentious and the portentous. Even the fascinating performances by Lee's actresses (Christina Ricci, Sigourney Weaver, and especially Joan Allen) too often became Rorschach artifacts for a picture that impersonated psychological depth more often than enacting or framing it, busy as it was mounting shot after shot of wintry Land's End exteriors. David Gordon Green's hypnotic George Washington, another important precursor, offered a more challenging and diverse panorama of juvenile disquiet, but that film's exquisite eye for locations and aspects too often choked the ideas in its narrative and its characterizations.

The Dangerous Lives of Altar Boys, to return to the subject at hand, is also based on a novel and assumes a point of view similar to The Ice Storm's: that of an awkward male pubescent trying to connect a rich fantasy life fueled by comic books with the increasingly melancholic tableaux of his real life. Here, the protagonist is Francis Doyle, played by another newcomer named émile Hirsch. Francis gads about with a flock of other semi-insolents, boys whose hankering for mischief and rebellion has so far been exercised where the ramifications won't be too big: drawing elaborate scenes of revenge against authorities in their notebooks, further vandalizing abandoned lots, this kind of thing. The teachers at Catholic school are annoyed, and Sister Assumpta (Jodie Foster) in particular worries for their spiritual health, but their prankish restlessness seem to be hardly the stuff of high tragedy or genuine risk.

The two characters who propel Francis' various awakenings over the course of the picture—and it is interesting that he remains principally a reactive character, even as his Marvel-inspired daydreams suggest otherwise—are Tim Sullivan (Kieran Culkin), his closest friend and partner in mini-crime, and Margie Flynn (Jena Malone), an introverted, once suicidal classmate who appears surprised at Francis' interest in her. On the most straightforward level, the conflict in Altar Boys involves the inevitability with which Margie replaces Tim in Francis' field of vision and curiosity. Tim's jealousy, in compliance with codes of masculine behavior that are normative even before high school, is not allowed to proclaim itself as such, though it is no arbitary gesture when director Care and editor Chris Peppe conclude the film with a frame of a green-eyed monster. In any event, all of the comical, sensual, and petty criminal behavior that transpires among these three characters is hard to read outside the context of Tim's resentment, Francis' indecision, and Margie's odd calm in the presence of friendly tensions that her arrival has conspicuously engendered.

But, even as I outline this triangulation of Francis, Tim, and Margie as the narrative and thematic spine of The Dangerous Lives of Altar Boys, the clever structure and rich detailing of the picture prohibit the kind of interpretation that would consecrate a "main story" in relation to which other folds and events were simply "subplots." The jocular but competitive ribaldries shared amongst Francis and Tim's friends are not mere stage-setting for subsequent conflicts; they are an achievement in themselves, as singularly faithful and uncondescending a portrait of young male socializing as American movies have recently given us. In this vein, The Dangerous Lives of Altar Boys is a worthy relation to Alfonso Cuarón's Y Tu Mamá También, both of them spectacularly but not sensationally attuned to the insane rivalries, shared fancies, and firm loyalties of boys (albeit younger in the American film than in the Mexican one) whose vivid conjectures about maturity and sexuality are often sobered by their lack of real knowledge or experience. When these guys meet on a sidewalk to compile their classroom doodlings into a notebook, the moment carries the weight of ritual: one is required to highlight and rebuke the shortcomings of his confrères, though an outsider would be swiftly punished for such meanness, and it is understood that no grudges are to be formed or maintained from the gratuitous exercise of ribbing and talking shit.

The realistic depictions of adolescence are so rich that the wild, suggestive, and hilarious animated sequences which realize Francis' comic-book plots feel at first like icing on the cake. But again, Altar Boys is not trafficking in simple dichotomies, which means the cartoon intervals are not ornaments to the main story but a crucial, equally-weighted ingredient in the movie's overall recipe. In these scenes, superbly inflated alter egos of our gawky antiheroes—reimagined as a drill-toting cyborg, a large-booted romper stomper, a tumescent and viney plant-creature, and a sentient being of pure muscle—do battle with an evil army of motorcycle witches obviously modeled on the nuns from school. When the schoolboys start searching out true-life escapades to mirror the thrills of their daydreams, we must realize that fantasy in this film is taken seriously as a motivating catalyst for real (and dangerous) lived behavior. The repercussions, of course, are worse and more final in the world than in the imaginary, but as "real" characters continue to shock Francis with their revelations of undreamed-of pleasures and perversions, the abrupt coincidences between the natural and the escapist transcend the formal level and create impressively powerful opportunities for expressing the furious energy of various doubts and instincts. Again, the superiority over The Ice Storm is clear, since Tobey Maguire's putative interest in comics in the Lee film was only a writerly conceit, never a persuasive subjective fact, and mostly pressed the fantastic implications of comics into the strained service of thin ironic commentary on the over-familiar anhedonia of the affluently suburban class.

By contrast, The Dangerous Lives of Altar Boys lands itself in an entrancing middle zone between a teenage idiom it wholly respects and a grown-up moral and psychological universe that perceives the precariousness of that age (without proferring simplistic ideas of how to escape it). The complex sensibility of the film is to the advantage of all its characterizations: beyond the central cadre of altar boys, Margie is a quietly commanding but tremendously sad creation, and the parochial authority figures played by Foster and Vincent D'Onofrio are neither omniscient symbols of propriety nor easy targets of satire. The Dangerous Lives of Altar Boys doesn't just avoid puerile definitions of good and bad, it aptly conveys the combined excitement and despair of realizing that the world exists in moral and providential disorder. One forgives the filmmakers some hoary foreshadowing in a mawkish roadside scene, especially since the screenplay's climactic events truly catch us off-guard. Less hermetic than Waking Life, dramatically bolder than The Mighty, at least the equal of Erick Zonca's haunting The Dreamlife of Angels, The Dangerous Lives of Altar Boys is that rarest of finds: a major success from young and unknown talents, a reinvigoration of a stalled genre, a movie to be watched more than once. Grade: A–

Independent Spirit Awards: Best First Feature
Boston Society of Film Critics: Best New Filmmaker (Care)

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