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Dangerous Lives of Altar Boys, The

Reviewed By Thom
Posted 06/14/02 17:20:10

"Nothing says I love you like poppin' fresh dough"
4 stars (Worth A Look)

I did the unthinkable and read advance reviews before finishing mine. So now my thoughts are “in the conversation” rather then “from the horses mouth”. Naturally, all us good critics often come up with similarly astute insights and now I’m having a hopelessly derivative crisis. Since YOU are probably not reading as many reviews of the film as I am, I’ll grin and deliver but my conscience is tugging at me. The Dangerous Lives of Altar Boys may sound like another cheap shot at the current ratings making news stories but it has nothing to do with buggery in the confessional.

It could as easily be called “The Difficult Lives of Altar Boys” but then who would have read it? We all have difficult lives. Or the title could have been expanded to The Dangerous Lives of Altar Boys Who, By the Nature of Their Decisions to Confront the Conditions of Their Lives in a Particular Way, Invite Danger as a Welcome Element to the Rites of Passage They Create For Themselves In Their Self-Guided Attempts To Grow Themselves Up and Live In The World They Are Subject To.

And the danger is very real. Wade, Joey, Francis and Tim (Jake Richardson, Tyler Long, Emile Hirsch and Kieren Culkin) endanger themselves physically, emotionally and even spiritually. The boys are experiencing the first gush of hormonal overdrive. Their sexual maturity within the rigid confines of the Catholic school they attend is the loudest theme in the film. Eventually, everything comes down to sex. Peter Care, who directs the adaptation of Chris Fuhrman’s posthumously published novel revels in the examination of sexuality in the very small world of the school.

Vincent D’Onofrio plays Father Casey, the principal of the school and Jodie Foster plays the boys teacher, Sister Assumpta. Father Casey and Sister Assumpta are both portrayed as utterly repressed individuals. Assumpta faithfully supplies the official Catholic position on sex during a field trip to a zoo while the Zoo keeper is explaining the mating habits of an animal. The boys and girls exchange sly, heated, awkward and unashamed glances while Assumpta is clearly shaken by the focus on biology.

Assumpta is completely aware of what is happening to her young charges but she must do her duty and crush the most natural and powerful instinct humans have. She does so by not simply recontextualizing their urges or addressing them by reminding them about the appropriate when and where and why and how, but by encouraging them to deny their feelings. The kids are not as interested in being a good Catholic as Assumpta is.

In a later scene Assumpta has her habit pulled up and she’s rolling her stocking up a wooden leg while Father Casey(D’Onofrio) is praying. He looks up and she shamefully puts her dress back down even though its only a wooden leg AND he’s a priest so (in theory) he no longer has even a spark of lust in his loins, especially for a bitter, hateful nun.

We know that Assumpta is just trying to do what is expected of her and fulfill the dictates of the path she chose. You know she believes in what she’s doing and that she thinks she’s doing the right thing. But the film isn’t about her as a nun, but as an antagonist to the boys.

They vent their frustration by creating a comic book, making Assumpta into a skull headed, Harley-riding Queen of Hell. In the most interesting part of the film, Todd McFarlane (Spawn) animates sequences from the comic book that mirror the myth of the boys’ life. The comic book becomes the place where their fears and frustrations, angst and joy are expressed. They are clearly the hero, whereas Assumpta is the villain.

When I was in junior high school, I was sent to in-school detention with my best friend, Shannon Henery and while in detention we made up a story about the teacher. I was always “the writer” and I wrote the story and he was the “drawer” and he drew. I can’t remember exactly what it was about, but I remember it had something to do with a boat, and he ate too many donuts and the ship sank and sharks came and ate him. We were exacting our revenge, the work was cathartic. We’d be laughing and the teacher would come by and we’d slip the paper under the work we were supposed to be doing. It would have been hell if he had separated us. We used to make all kinds of comic booky things like that together. Living in a very small town, our options were limited so we used our creativity to retell our own stories and simply to entertain ourselves. We also spent a lot of time staging fights between He-Man action figures. He-Man wasn’t always the good guy.

So I highly identified with this part of the film.

Culkin said that D’Onofrio was their unofficial life counselor on the set telling them all kinds of stories and giving them advice. D’Onofrio is kind of swarthy in a dark and dangerous way. His priest comes off as warm and conflicted, who has an uncomfortable relationship with his obligation to the church. As a priest trying to talk about sex to an adolescent boy, he realizes, no matter what he says he is going to sound ludicrous, but he has to say it anyway and pretend like he believes it.

Another compelling portrait in the film is the teenage girl as not sexual victim, but predator. It was refreshingly honest. I remember as a young boy having an inappropriate sexual encounter with someone who should have known better and I enjoyed it. I don’t mean to say that all kids want sexual attention from adults but I didn’t feel traumatized. I felt very much in control and enjoyed the attention. I think if it were forced on me, instead of me being the seducer (kids know more than you think), I’d be a different person today.

I do not recommend initiating sexual contact with children. I think it is important to understand that children engaging in sex play with their peers is a normal part of psychosexual development, but as adults, we need to have strict boundaries around sex and sexuality. I know this seems like a no-brainer, but if it was, we wouldn’t have an endless stream of childhood sexual victimization. I only mention it because the character of Margie (Jena Malone) puts a new spin on female sexuality. She completely owns her sexuality and shows us that women are not always the prey.

While it is true that women are by far victims more often then men and even women will talk to each in ways that reinforce their roles as sex objects, decorations, support beams, to see such a bold admittance of one’s own sexual desire and sexual power, is a charged image especially coming from the seeming tenderness of an adolescent, who are far less innocent and far more sexual then our society wants to think about.

I’m not worried that guys going to see this film will now be assured that “she was asking for it and she liked it” because I don’t think that kind of guy will go see this movie.

The Dangerous Lives of Altar boys is not just about examining the cracks where dogma pushes up against nature. It is a look at sex from a few controversial angles but it is also about friendship and love and the moments that forge the character of the emotional bonds we have with others.

I recommend it for its powerful, direct honesty. Dangerous Lives of Altar Boys was a feather brushing against the most sensitive parts of myself and I saw my own difficult road to maturity reflected in ALL the characters. They are engaged in a dynamic whole that could be seen as all the parts of a person dealing with themselves in an honest way in the face of a cosmic NO!

We all want to be loved and accepted without having to give up those parts of ourselves that are most precious or feel the most right. All the characters in Dangerous Lives are the voices in a dialectic of a person who ultimately integrates into mature wholeness tinged with bittersweet wisdom and perspective. This process doesn’t come cheap and the price we are asked to pay is what makes the road dangerous.

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