REVIEW: Care's Coming-of-Age Through Comics, with "Altar Boys"
by Andy Bailey
[EDITOR'S NOTE: This story originally ran in indieWIRE in January 2002, when it was reviewed at the Sundance Film Festival. ThinkFilm releases the movie today.].
Creation is the best revenge in "The Dangerous Lives of Altar Boys," Peter Care's gossamer-hued re-imagining of Chris Fuhrman's 1994 coming-of-age novel about Catholic school "tweens." Adrift in a lazy seventies Southern hamlet, these kids channel boredom and pubescent longing into a violent, sexually explicit comic book called "The Atomic Trinity" that gets them into hot water with their elders. When they aren't imagining themselves as the superhero triumvirate of Captain Asskicker, Skeleton Boy and Major Screw, fighting the evil Nunzilla in a series of recurring animated sequences conceived by "Spawn" creator Todd MacFarlane, the hormone-addled gang enacts a series of rebellious pranks designed to disrupt their stone-faced nemesis, the peg-legged Catholic school instructor Sister Assumpta, played by Jodie Foster.
This rite-of-passage drama, sort of a "Stand by Me" for the stoner rock set, walks a rickety fence between snarky and sentimental without letting its cartoonish flights of fancy loom too large. But the animated sequences won't be enough to appease the comic book crowd, and nostalgists will likely be disappointed by the picture's overt eschewing of pop cultural references. "That '70s Movie" this ain't; rather it's a mostly subdued film that merits a much larger audience than it will likely find. Upstart distributor ThinkFilm will release the oft-delayed movie this June -- during high popcorn season -- where it will either emulate the success of "Ghost World" or disappear into the ether, "Donnie Darko"-style.
Best friends Frances Doyle (Emile Hirsch, in a remarkable debut performance) and Tim Sullivan (Kieran Culkin, more sniveling than Macauley, less winsome than Rory) are best friends and co-conspirators in a Catholic school chaos spree that includes ogling William Blake's forbidden "Marriage of Heaven & Hell" and stealing the school mascot (a concrete nun) in a midnight raid. Tim's main concern is challenging Assumpta's power, while the more subdued and thoughtful Frances has eyes for Maggie Flynn (Jena Malone), a lanky girl-next-door type who's harboring a provocative secret. The immensely appealing, doe-eyed, buttoned-nosed Malone, who played similar roles in "Darko" and "Bastard Out of Carolina," is fast becoming the indie queen of troubled teendom.
During times of contemplation and crisis, the young characters imagine themselves fighting evil as The Atomic Trinity. Maggie's animated alter ego, for example, is the beautiful goddess Sorcerella, searching for a stolen pearl that will restore her crumbled kingdom to order. (How's that for a virginity parable?) Tim and Frances imagine themselves destroying Nunzilla in a series of violent animated sequences that will either thrill the audience or totally alienate it. The film's animated energy is one thing, but its human factor is somewhat less intriguing. Its incest subplot is weak and underdeveloped. We're also denied a true sense of the boys' home lives; Care settles for long shots of Tim's parents bickering through an open window or Francis's mother chiding him for drawing buxom girls instead of doing his homework.
Through its depiction of adolescence during a more innocent time -- before disco, Spielberg, Columbine, first-person shooter games, ultraviolent Japanese manga comics, etc. -- the sweetly evocative "Dangerous Lives of Altar Boys" also recalls the whimsy of Michael Chabon's Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, "The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay," in which two teenage chums find joy in sublimating the evils of the 20th century into a garishly animated secret history of their own making. How comic books fueled the youthful imagination through much of the last century, and how adults have traditionally misperceived the motives of their young creators, is what the filmmakers seem to be getting at here. But the film often grows mired in its own hazy-eyed nostalgia.
Care, who previously made music videos for R.E.M. and Depeche Mode, settles for a vastly more simplistic tone than in his MTV-era clips. He directs with an easygoing style that reflects the lazy, pot-scented atmosphere of the era. Care leaves the glitzy hijinks to MacFarlane's retro-futuristic animated sequences, which bridge the gap between the Superfriends and Spawn. The film's deliberate pacing isn't helped much by Queens of the Stone Age frontman Joshua Homme's stoner rock score.
In the end, "Altar Boys" plays like a sad lament for an era passed -- a time when you could still buy rock albums and spin them lazily all afternoon while you grapple for second base with the girl next door. What Care and MacFarlane have achieved above all else with "The Dangerous Lives of Altar Boys," and what saves the picture from the cult-comic cartoon ghetto, is its overall respect for the teenage imagination. The geeks shall inherit the earth, the film seems to suggest, if only they don't go overboard with their boredom and restlessness