With select priests offering their own "Hail Mary"s these days, Peter Care's The Dangerous Lives of Altar Boys couldn't possibly sound more topical. But as far as I could tell, there weren't any pedophiles in sight. And the dangers alluded to in the movie's title have more to do with growing up than with being held down. How does one make the awkward transition from boy to man when the Catholic Church, in the form of a one-legged nun named Sister Assumpta (Jodie Foster), is breathing down one's neck? Well, it ain't easy. But comic books help. And so do friends. And so does a fair amount of hell-raising. For the pair of small-town miscreants played by Emile Hirsch and Kieran Culkin, idleness is the devil's playground. Then the jungle gym collapses.
Based on a novel by Chris Fuhrman, The Dangerous Lives of Altar Boys is set in the '70s, but Care doesn't police the border to that remote decade, allowing in backpacks and words like "asswipe." Even so, when one of the boys mentioned getting "some tongue," I nearly choked on my madeleine. And a discussion of whether boners contain bone rang a rusty bell. Care has a nice feeling for the way kids talk ' used to talk, anyway. And although the movie, like the boys, is awash in testosterone, it also shows some real sensitivity to the estrogen side of things. Jena Malone, who looks like a young Helen Hunt, plays Margie, a well-scrubbed Catholic girl with a dirty little secret. And for once, a boy's movie allows a girl to have a life of her own.
Hirsch's Francis and Culkin's Tim have cultivated an epic hatred for Sister Assumpta, which would make more sense if the congenitally earnest Foster weren't so woefully miscast. Even so, a lot of movie time is taken up with the boys' attempts, real and imagined, to put a crease in the sister's wimple. The real attempts are the usual schoolboy things, albeit with deadlier consequences. The imagined attempts involve a comic book the boys are working on, which bursts upon the screen courtesy of Spawn creator Todd McFarlane. These animated sequences are enjoyable in their own right, with the boys reincarnated as superheroes and Sister Assumpta transformed into a motorcycle hellion named Nunzilla, but are they strictly necessary?
The Dangerous Lives of Altar Boys is at its best when it isn't pressing too hard, when it's allowing life to follow its own wayward course. One of my favorite moments is when Margie, impressed with a theological question that Francis came up with on a field trip, says to him, "So, you're interested in souls and stuff?" Also, Vincent D'Onofrio gives a nicely understated performance as a priest who smokes cigarettes and, when caught by surprise, shouts "Jesus H. Christ." To its credit, the movie isn't particularly interested in souls and stuff, preferring that rich terrain between Jesus Christ and Jesus H. Christ. Some may find the story a little sentimental, even a little maudlin, in places. But hey, that's what they used to say about "Kumbaya."