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The Dangerous Lives of Altar Boys (Peter Care) 2002
It’s unfortunate that the excitement caused by the opening credits of The Dangerous Lives of Altar Boys, Peter Care’s directorial debut, might also be the film’s peak. Showing the imaginary transformation of the titular characters into superheroes by animating one of their comic-inspired sketchbooks, it promises more growth and transformation in them than the film is ultimately able to deliver. What we do get is a rather adequately conceived coming of age tale that really doesn’t provide much in the way of thrills or observation. Dangerous is one of those frustrating exercises that work better in individual scenes than as a cohesive whole. The audience keeps hoping that one moment’s revelation might build to more emotional understanding later, but most of the movie’s surprises seem calculated only to shock us, instead of attempting to lead us toward a better understanding of what it is that makes the trouble kids at the center of the movie tick.
Everything about the film seems to lack the focus that would make it tick, however, so this isn’t entirely surprising. There’s tons of religious symbolism, and the nun that antagonizes the boys most ferociously (Jodie Foster) has a Buñuelian wooden leg, which seems to suggest we’re supposed to see this misfits as victims of a society that doesn’t understand them, but they’re really pretty boring, as far as kids go, and they seem to have themselves to blame for the vast majority of their problems. They’re interested in sex, comic books, and mischief, which places them in the a majority with the rest of the nation’s teen boy population, so to suggest they’re societal outcasts (or worse yet Christ figures – no amount of religious symbolism can make me buy that…) is fairly absurd. It doesn’t help much that the majority of their dialogue features them spouting insights or witticisms that seem far above them.
The animated sequences, which initially seem to promise some sort of differentiation between this and every other teen drama, end up only supplying the film with even more heavy-handed metaphors. It’s not a total washout, however. There’s a clever scene in which a chain-smoking priest (Vincent D’Onofrio) lectures a questioning teen about the necessity to overcome physical temptation, and there’s also a good turn by Jena Malone, who must be every angst-ridden teen boy’s wet dream by now. She’s better here than she was in Donnie Darko, in which she played a remarkably similar character, if for no other reason than because she has more of a character to play this time out. Unfortunately, none of the boys that fill out the rest of the cast of Altar Boys exhibit anywhere near the oddball charm that Jake Gyllenhall did as Donnie. While it’s true that there’s little about Altar Boys that’s inept, there’s even less about it that’s genuinely interesting.