[Screen It]

(2002) (Kieran Culkin, Emile Hirsch) (R)

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Drama: A group of Catholic high school boys experience the fun, turmoil and pangs of adolescence as they grow up in the 1970s.
It's the 1970s and Tim Sullivan (KIERAN CULKIN) and Francis Doyle (EMILE HIRSCH) are best friends who attend the same Catholic high school run by Sister Assumpta (JODIE FOSTER) and Father Casey (VINCENT D'ONOFRIO). Along with their friends Wade (JAKE RICHARDSON) and Joey (TYLER LONG), the boys are mischievous troublemakers.

When not driving Sister Assumpta crazy by their antics and pranks, they're drawing their comic book series, The Atomic Trinity, where they imagine themselves as superheroes battling their nun-based, motorcycle riding arch-nemesis, Nunzilla.

As the boys straddle the fine line of adolescence where sometimes they act mature and at others they behave in a decidedly juvenile fashion, Francis finds himself drawn to a young and pretty girl, Margie Flynn (JENA MALONE), whose calm demeanor masks all sorts of inner chaos.

With Francis and Margie becoming an item, Tim sets his sights on sedating and borrowing a mountain line from a nearby game preserve as something of a surprise gift for Sister Assumpta who's rightly accused the boys of stealing a statue of the church's patron saint, but can't prove it.

As Tim proceeds with his plan and Francis learns some surprising things about Margie and her past, the boys and their friendship change in ways they never could have imagined.

OUR TAKE: 7.5 out of 10
Like many kids, my friends and I were big comic book connoisseurs who loved the tales of superheroes and villains so much that we decided - like many children inevitably do - to produce our own comics. Despite wildly varying levels of artistic and storytelling abilities, we set out to conquer the publishing world.

Okay, maybe that wasn't really the goal, and our foray only ended up generating a few issues as we quickly lost interest in the endeavor that straddled the line between the fun and innocence of early adolescence and the more adult-oriented task of organizing and publishing a comic series.

Tim Sullivan, Frances Doyle and their friends are young adolescents in the 1970s trying to do the same thing in the superb coming of age tale, "The Dangerous Lives of Altar Boys." While the title might suggest another sort of story considering the recent allegations of priests abusing young boys, the film is actually based on the acclaimed novel of the same name by the late author Chris Fuhrman.

Much like other excellent coming of age films such as "Stand By Me," this effort tells the story of those boys in their turbulent adolescence without coming off as juvenile, manipulative or demeaning. Like Gordie and Chris in that film, the characters and their tale come off as fresh and engaging, and everything about them and their lives feels real.

As directed by Peter Care (making his feature film debut) who works from an adapted screenplay by Jeff Stockwell (also making a notable debut), the film drops the viewer into the characters' world and allows us to watch as various outside events and those of their own doing change and shape their transformation from kids into young adults. Funny, poignant and even tragic, those events never feel mawkish or contrived, and both the cast and crew get quite a bit of mileage out of the material.

Where the film differs from other coming of age stories - and most movies in general - is with the inclusion of various animated sequences into the live-action footage. Since much of the novel took place inside a character's head, where he imagined the struggle of good vs. evil in a creative fashion, Care enlisted the aid of animator Todd McFarlane (creator of Spawn) to create the animated segments that would represent that.

Symbolizing and paralleling the boys' lives, thoughts and inner turmoil, the sequences occasionally show up after certain key events in the live-action film. While that might sound odd and/or distracting - and it initially is - the inclusion ends up working to an okay extent. Even so, they easily could have been jettisoned with no ill effect on the overall film.

Beyond the script and directorial touch, what makes or breaks a picture like this - as was the case with "Stand By Me" and other films of the same ilk - are the performances that must portray the intricacies of adolescence in just the right and believable manner.

Fortunately, this one is teeming with terrific ones. While that's to be expected from veterans such as Jodie Foster ("Panic Room," "Anna and the King") and Vincent D'Onofrio ("The Salton Sea," "Men in Black") who play the Catholic school's nun and priest respectively in small but decent parts, the biggest surprise comes from those delivered by Kieran Culkin ("The Cider House Rules," "Music of the Heart"), Emile Hirsch (making his feature film debut) and Jena Malone ("Life as a House," "Stepmom").

Culkin and Hirsch perfectly create a completely believable duo of pranksters and troublemakers whose friendship is tested and changed by what occurs over the course of the film. The two deliver excellent and engaging takes on their characters that, while not always sympathetic or even likable, are certainly always mesmerizing.

The same holds true for Malone who may be one of the best actresses of her age working in films today. Her performance is polished yet raw, and works perfectly for the part. The rest of the performers inhabit supporting to small roles, but Jake Richardson ("Jay and Silent Bob Strike Back," "Honey We Shrunk Ourselves") and Tyler Long ("The Patriot," "Forrest Gump") are decent as the remaining members of the quartet of troublemakers.

With the filmmakers wisely avoiding any real temporal or regional qualities that might have pigeonholed or left the picture in something of a time warp, their effort becomes a timeless coming of age story that anyone who's going or has been through such turbulent, adolescent times will be able to identify with.

While not for all viewers due to the subject matter and material, the film is a breath of fresh air in a cinematic world filled with so many stale and recycled efforts. Engaging, memorable, and teeming with terrific performances from its young cast, "The Dangerous Lives of Altar Boys" rates as a 7.5 out of 10.

Reviewed June 11, 2002 / Posted June 21, 2002

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