There’s a moment in The Dangerous Lives of Altar Boys where Tim Sullivan, a brash 14 year old with a broken arm and a crumbling home played by Kieran Culkin, breathlessly talks about the genius of William Blake. This has been singled out by some reviewers as a false note in the script. Would a comic book obsessed eighth grader really be so fascinated by an eighteenth century romantic poet? Surely this is just a device the director, Peter Care, used to include the ideas of innocence and experience in his coming of age tale. Of course it is a device, but that doesn’t mean that it’s not also beautifully authentic; adolescence is full of the intoxicating blend of high and low art, to Tim and his best friend Francis (Emile Hirsch, in his film debut) William Blake and Stan Lee can be spoken of in the same breath. The Dangerous Lives of Altar Boys allows its young protagonists to be troublemakers and thinkers, pushing the narrow boundaries of their provincial lives through their pranks (both childish and with serious consequences) and their questions. In short it takes its young protagonists seriously, even when the people around them still treat them like children.
Based on the only novel by Chris Fuhrman, a semi-autobiographical story set in Savannah Georgia in the 1970s, The Dangerous Lives of Altar Boys was published in 1994, three years after Fuhrman had died of cancer. The film is dedicated to his memory. It also happens to be the only feature film by Peter Care. Before The Dangerous Lives of Altar Boys Care was an accomplished music video director. His early videos for the industrial band Cabaret Voltaire became known for their innovative editing and camera work, which took its cues from the experimental art world. Care was especially fond of playing around with complex camera rigs, allowing him to swoop the camera up and over the action and back around, landing on the reverse shot upside down. His video for Cabaret Voltaire’s Sensoria was named the best video of 1985 by the L.A. Times and was one of the first music videos ever purchased by the Museum of Modern Art in New York to be part of their collections. After that his career took off, working with R.E.M., Bruce Springsteen, Tom Petty, Tina Turner, and Depeche Mode. His videos tread the line between art and commerce, always having a healthy dose of avant guard experimentation in with more mainstream fare.
Music videos have been a fertile breeding ground for feature film directors (David Fincher, Spike Jonze, Mark Webb, and Michel Gondry all got their start directing videos for 80s and 90s acts), but they can also conjure up visions of quick cuts, and style before substance. The best music video directors though become masters of pacing, a frenetic barrage of images can be very efficient when trying to get a story across in five minutes, but that cannot be maintained over the course of two hours. In The Dangerous Lives of Altar Boys Peter Care takes the time to give the characters space to breathe. Unlike his early music video work his camera never draws attention to itself, but The Dangerous Lives of Altar Boys does have one very important stylistic flourish. In order to illustrate the fertile inner lives of its teenage characters Care hired comic book artist Todd McFarlane, who created the Spawn series, to animate the adventures of The Atomic Trinity in their battles against the one legged motorcycle riding nun, Peg Leg. These vignettes, in addition to being beautifully animated, allow you to peek inside Francis’ brain at how he views his friends and the world around him. Though they start out campy and clichéd as Francis himself matures they do too, by the end bringing surprising depth and subtext to the main story.
Still none of this would matter if Peter Care had not cast the right actors to be his altar boys. Emile Hirsch is appealingly earnest as Francis, an artist trying to figure out the complexities friendship and first love. That love is Margie Flynn. In the first of five roles that required her to wear a school uniform (Donnie Darko was filmed a month after she wrapped on Altar Boys, then Life as a House a year later, and in 2002 The United States of Leland and Saved! were filmed back to back) Jena Malone gives the depressed and confused Margie a quiet dignity. But it is Kieran Culkin’s Tim, who steals not only the statue of St Agatha from the school clock tower, but the movie as well. His Tim is irreverent and vulnerable, smart and foolhardy, bold and terrified of being left behind. Kieran Culkin is the type of actor you entirely forget about between films (he makes this easy by appearing in them only slightly more frequently than his retired older brother, Macaulay), but as soon as you see him again you realize what an incredible talent he has for slithering in under the skin of a character. The chemistry between Culkin and Hirsch drives the movie and makes it one of the best coming of age film of the 2000s.
“Tough as well as tender, a coming-of-age story that touches on the need for art, the uses of myth, the wonders of sublimation and, most potent of all, the rawness and ferocity of adolescent feeling. For once a movie gets kids truly and fully right.” Joe Morgenstern, Wall Street Journal