If it’s possible for a film to be simultaneously ambitious and banal, The Dangerous Lives of Altar Boys is it. There’s little here we haven’t seen repeatedly in some form or another — growing up Catholic is popular fodder for filmmakers, as is growing up in the American South, usually in a small town. A Catholic Southern town may be mildly innovative, but other than the novelty of hearing Irish-accented nuns in a North Carolina setting, it’s all the same old “summer that everything changed and I learned life lessons” bit, with a handful of the old harsh Catholic discipline thrown in.
Directed by U.K. music-video director Peter Care, the film thankfully jettisons the first-person narration of Chris Fuhrman’s novel. The inner monologue of protagonist Francis (impressive newcomer Emile Hirsch) is instead represented by a series of animated segments in which Francis and his friends appear as ultraviolent superheroes with names like Captain Asskicker and Major Screw. It’s an innovative conceit, especially given that Care hired Todd McFarlane, guru of grisly toys and comic books, to create the vignettes, with design work by usual McFarlane collaborators Greg Capullo, Angel Medina and Ashley Wood.
Unfortunately, the concept doesn’t work as well as it should. The opening animated sequence, which aggressively brings to life a series of doodles on notebook paper, captures the turbulent spirit of boys in the repressed throes of early adolescence, and bodes well. But later moments resemble professional cartoons and end up feeling like unwelcome commercial breaks as the drama increases.
Care and screenwriter Jeff Stockwell have understandably shifted the book’s chronology to better fit Hollywood’s three-act structure, and the authority figures have been amalgamated into two characters: uptight, wooden-legged Sister Assumpta (Jodie Foster) and casual, soccer-playing, cigarette-smoking Father Casey (Vincent D’Onofrio, underacting for once). Francis finds first love with the younger sister (Donnie Darko‘s Jena Malone, ably playing thirteen at age eighteen) of a school bully, while best friend Tim (Kieran Culkin) plots an elaborate revenge prank on Sister Assumpta that involves drugging a cougar (upsized from the book’s bobcat), stealing it from the local zoo and letting it loose in school. Peer pressure being what it is, Francis gets dragged into this misbegotten adventure in between attempts at copping a feel.
There’s tragedy ahead, though, and it’s too ridiculous to work. Must every youthful reminiscence feature a death of some sort? Despite what movies would often have us believe, not everyone encounters death just as adulthood dawns. Give Care and McFarlane points for trying to do something unique with the same old thing. But as spruced up as the facade may be, this movie is indeed still the same old thing.