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ReelTalk Movie Reviews
ALTAR BOYS Is No Comic Book
by Diana Saenger

Tim Sullivan (Kieran Culkin) is 14 years old, enrolled in a strict Catholic school and having problems at home. Francis Doyle (Emile Hirsch) is Tim’s school chum, and he’s falling in love. Based on the book The Dangerous Lives of Altar Boys by the late Chris Fuhrman, this '70s coming-of-age story follows a few boys who take all their frustrations out on the church or themselves.

Tim, Francis, and several other friends (including Tyler Long and Jake Richardson) are imaginative teenagers who reduce every thing in life to visual mediums. The boys use their artistic talents to start a comic book in which Sister Assumpta (Jodie Foster), the authority figure in their lives – and to them the enemy, emerges as a fiendish, motorcycle-riding villain who battles their alter egos.

Throughout the movie the comic characters swing into full-animated sequences, exploring the good, evil and emotional aspects of the boys’ lives. During this time, the youngsters find many ways to be destructive. They steal the school’s Virgin Mary statue, fail to do their assignments, and write anonymous letters to Sister Assumpta. Even with patient guidance by Father Casey (Vincent D’Onofrio), the boys are irresponsible and unrepentant.

Their life away from school unravels even faster. They drink, sneak out of the house after dark and ignore their parent’s rules. Francis has fallen for Margie (Jena Malone), a sweet girl who likes him as well. Margie breaks Francis’s heart when confessions of her past send him on a destructive path. With no attention from his parents, Tim is a loose cannon who can’t think up dangerous and stupid stunts fast enough. For example, the one involving zoo animals is quite lame and reveals screenwriter Jeff Stockwell’s lack of understanding that even teenage boys have some intelligent reasoning power.

Coming-of-age stories are not new. The trick for filmmakers is to make them work. Although using the two mediums of comic book sequences and live action impressed me as clever and done well, I felt they came across as a bit over-done for the audience. That’s a major problem with Altar Boys. The movie received an "R" rating because of its many dark and unsuitable scenes for teens, yet the entire subject matter,  especially the comic book elements, seems a natural draw for teens, who can’t see the movie. And Stockwell goes too far into the comic vision for an adult audience.

Performances by the boys are terrific. Kieran Culkin is a great actor, finding many levels in his different films. "He’s an incredible talent," Foster said. Emile Hirsch, who has done several television roles, makes his film debut in Altar Boys and also does a fantastic job.

"He has an unbelievable sweetness, innocence and non-Hollywood-kid attitude that was perfect," said producer Jay Shapiro.

With a little tweaking away from the dark side, Altar Boys could have earned a rating of "PG-13" and become a great movie for teens. As is, this film misses both audiences.

(Released by Egg Pictures/ThinkFilm and rated "R" for language, sexual content, and youth substance abuse.)

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