Anarchy in the soul

The wacky wages of sin and Catholic repression.

Jun 19, 2002 at 12:00 am
What if you refuse to believe in hell because you're already living in the worst hell of all, adolescence in Catholic school? The Dangerous Lives of Altar Boys is not about the obvious dangers inherent when lonely priests are surrounded by young budding boys. It has to do with a much more insidious threat to young minds in middle school — the smothering of original thought, and the consequences thereof. This is just the Catholic version.

It's dark outside. The crickets are chirping. The shadow of a cross falls across two 14-year-old boys as they study the telephone pole that's the source of the shadow in the distance. Tim (Kieran Culkin) pulls out a triangular ruler and makes his calculations before pulling out a chain saw to slice a triangle out of the pole. The boys quickly take their calculated places and as the pole falls between them, practically licking their sides, Tim hollers out to Frances (Emile Hirsch) his prayer of want, "Revenge on the one-legged bitch in black and white."

The next morning, Sister Assumpta (Jody Foster) drags her prosthetic leg about and tightens her lips as she paces her classroom, asking her students to offer up their prayers for Timothy Sullivan's alcoholism-plagued family, and if they did their triangulation homework.

You'd never guess that this is British director Peter Care's first feature film (he’d spent his time with documentaries, music videos and commercial work until now). Based on Chris Fuhrman's novel of the same name, The Dangerous Lives of Altar Boys manages to capture that impossible time when idealism clashes with reality and religion, wrapped inside a delicious nostalgia that's forced to wear white shirts, black ties and blue pants.

Also set in the ’70s, it's somehow reminiscent of Ang Lee's The Ice Storm, mixing the teenage point of view with the intensities of adulthood translated through the action-packed, simplified adolescent language of comics. Tim, Francis and their buddies Wade and Joey spend their free time as their alter egos, the Atomic Trinity: the Muscle, Brakken, Ass-Kicker and Major Screw. They battle evil nuns (who look a lot like "Scooby-Doo" ghosts) and pledge to help Sorcerella (Francis' comic version of crush-object Margie Flynn) restore the sword to the pearl of wisdom.

Tim slips Margie a poem and signs Francis' name. Francis confesses and asks her to read the poem to him, so she reads, "Margie, Margie burning bright, in the forest of the night, what immortal hand or eye could frame thy fearful symmetry?" Francis replies, "That sounds about right."

There's no room for original thought when it comes to Catholic school. Tim's keen interest in the writings and paintings of William Blake is not Sister Assumpta-approved. When Tim defends Blake's writings as easy enough for a 6-year-old to understand, she answers, "So are the instructions for a handgun. Blake is a very dangerous thinker."

Francis tells the zoo tour guide that Catholics are taught that animals don't have souls. He wants to know what she thinks. Those muffled ideas and thoughts have to go somewhere, so Francis' drawings and imagination come to life in comic-book-style animation that meshes action, violence, Catholicism and falling in love into a language he can control. And Tim's excessive creativity manifests itself in the form of outrageous schemes that he's just smart enough to manufacture, like stealing the statue of Saint Agatha.

Care's depiction of young boys is so genuine, it seems as if you're watching memories you've never had. They sneak booze into cola cans, play makeshift basketball, kung fu kick in the forest after a couple of free puffs off a roach from the trailer-park guy and aggressively lash out at each other to the point of fighting before they can get themselves to expose their dangerously vulnerable secrets. Both Hirsch and Culkin wear their roles well, especially Culkin who possesses an earnest intensity that makes you totally believe he's capable of magic. And Jodie Foster is terrifying as Sister Assumpta, yet overcomes you (and even Tim) with her bona fide fear for the boys’ souls.

Like just about everything in the adult world, things get complicated and dangerous. The journey into adulthood is even more treacherous as teenagers watch their need to be accepted swallow ideals and freedoms in a battle with monumental results — because, as Chris Furhman puts it, "Every adult is the creation of a child."

Opens Friday exclusively at the Main Art Theatre (118 N. Main, Royal Oak). Call 248-542-0180.