Mon July 8, 2002
The Dangerous Lives of Altar Boys
Regardless of the eras, we all were headed toward sin and redemption as altar boys.
By John DeSando WCBE’s “It’s Movie Time”
In my Catholic grammar school, the feared Sister Alexia stood me up in front of my eight-grade class to announce I was no more like my seminary-bound brother “than chalk is like cheese.” So when I recently saw Peter Care’s “Dangerous Lives of Altar Boys,” I knew I had found the one film that understood the Catholic altar boy experience completely, from heaven (often visions of girls) to hell (often thoughts of what we would do to those girls). Along the way we would devise plans to make life as hard for Sister Alexia as possible.
In “Altar Boys” Jody Foster plays the wicked, peg-legged Sister Assumpta. Kieran Culkin leads the altar boys in a dangerous series of pranks, sometimes blurring the lines between comedy and tragedy. But checking out the girls while holding the plate for the priest during communion was just one of the many rituals we all vigorously adhered to with the requisite punishments.
In sixth grade we trashed the wicked Sister’s classroom. We were caught and punished, and I also received the good citizenship award that year. How could that happen? I was the cutest damned altar boy you ever saw and my father was a generous physician. Similarly in the film the boys steal a statue, trash a classroom, and attempt to liberate a dangerous animal from the zoo. Regardless of the eras, we all were headed toward sin and redemption as altar boys.
Besides the wickedly accurate feel for schoolboy anxiety and exaltation, “Altar Boys” intersperses comic-book hero segments from “The Atomic Trinity” that the boys are creating on the side (Sister Assumpta is their“Nunzilla”). The animations are perfectly matched to the lives of the boys and occur with exquisite timing. The altar boys here have an unusual affinity for making comic books and appreciating William Blake, the comics and poet evoking the stark worlds of innocence and experience, heaven and hell.
The adolescent love story involving Jena Malone and Emil Hirsch is tender and foreboding of the dangerous lives awaiting the altar boys. Her secret is difficult for Hirsch and audience to accept, but it does reflect the Catholic penchant for damning most sexually-related sins.
Although this film is far from the current controversy about sexual abuse, in some ways it is the same: abuse of power draws the Almighty’s wrath sooner or later.
In third grade a nun called me a dirty thing for holding a little girl’s hand. I wish she had seen “Dangerous Lives of Altar Boys” because then she would have seen me for the good citizen I was. This is one of the best films of the year and my personal favorite for renewing my conflicted affair with Catholicism.
John DeSando co-hosts WCBE’s “It’s Movie Time” and vice chairs the board of The Film Council of Greater Columbus.