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maryann johanson | watching movies at home

The Dangerous Lives of Altar Boys (review)

Recent revelations about the secret goings-on in the Catholic Church tell us that altar boys’ lives were a lot more dangerous in the 1970s than this coming-of-age dramedy lets on. But that doesn’t diminish its startling power one whit. Restless high-schoolers Tim Sullivan (Kieran Culkin: The Cider House Rules) and Francis Doyle (Emile Hirsch) strain against the confines of their existence: the stifling Catholicism of their teachers, like Sister Assumpta (Jodie Foster: Panic Room), who informs them that reading William Blake is a sin; the chains of adolescence, limiting their freedom and power. There’s nothing glowingly nostalgic about this daring film: the complicated emotional mess of adolescence gets played out in the boys’ fantasy comic strip, in which they star as superheroes battling evil villains in the persons of Sister Assumpta and Father Casey (Vincent D’Onofrio: The Salton Sea). The Todd McFarlane-animated sequences, candy-colored and typically comic-booky over the top, only underscore, by stark contrast, the film’s unvarnished depiction of teenage life as hard, confusing, and awkward. Their desire — and that of their friend Margie Flynn (Jena Malone: Life as a House) — to jump head-first into what they imagine is the adult world is the real danger facing them, one that will lead them horribly astray. By turns hilarious and uncomfortable, this is the rare film about teenagers than treats their hopes and fears and concerns as worthy of serious consideration.

MPAA: rated R for language, sexual content and youth substance use

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