DVDregs: The Dangerous Lives of Altar Boys

Considering the current state of secret sins now stripped bare within the Catholic Church, you’d think that a movie called The Dangerous Lives of Altar Boys would be about something completely different than it is. However, there is not one mention of the abuse that I’m sure many have assumed would be present in a movie with such a title. This isn’t Sleepers after all.

Instead, this is a quirky independent film based on a novel written by Chris Fuhrman. Unfortunately, this was Fuhrman’s only novel, as he died of cancer not long before Altar Boys’ 1991 publication. I have read the book and remember being pleased by the fact that it and the movie, while sharing fundamental similarities, are quite different in complementary ways. I wish I could be more precise. However, it’s been almost 10 years since I read the book, so I would definitely need to re-read it to speak more precisely about such things.

The story springs from Fuhrman’s semi-autobiographical memoir of growing up in a small Southern town in the 1970s. One of the things that I immediately identified when I watched this movie for the first time was that they filmed in a small Southern town where I spent many an adolescent summer. I know it’s a silly thing to latch onto in a movie, but there were so many scenes in which I recognized where the actors were…places that held happy memories of my own. I think this fact became an unexpectedly large point in this movie’s favor, even before the story began to really take form.

Beyond this, however, it’s a pretty straight-forward coming-of-age tale with some unique twists that are at times quite disturbing and quite spectacular. Francis Doyle is a 14-year-old boy who attends the St. Agnes Catholic School with his best friend, Tim Sullivan. To stave off boredom, Tim unmercifully harasses the headmistress, a wooden-leg-sporting nun named Sister Assumpta, and Francis longs for his first crush, Margie Flynn. Francis and Tim come from disparately similar troubled families, although in the film Tim’s home life is far more emotionally brutal, and so they escape from reality into a fantasy world that aspiring comic artist Francis draws for them.

This fact leads to one of the more delightful twists offered by this film. Rather than taking the trite and over-abused Wonder Years-esque voice-over route, this movie uses animated sequences to transition between scenes as well as to reflect how Francis is dealing with some rather dark and heavy moments in reality by processing them through his fantasy world. Add to this the fact that the filmmakers brought in comic artist extraordinaire Todd McFarlane to handle all the animated sequences and you get animated sequences that are brilliant in how they reflect and translate moments from reality so beautifully.

They also provide one of my favorite moments/transitions in the movie. There’s a scene where Sister Assumpta drives by the boys on her moped, her habit flowing behind her in sharp contrast against the dusky light. The moment, from an objective standpoint, is quaint and whimsical: a nun on a moped at twilight. McFarlane, however, carries that innocent moment immediately over into his animation, transforming Assumpta into the highly subjective image that Francis and his friends see when they think of the sister: the villainous Peg Leg, her habit whipping menacingly toward the screen as she roars away from us on her motorcycle and spins around to face us. Her face is shrouded in darkness by her habit, her eyes white slits sans irises or pupils, giving her visage a hideous, demonic cast. It was such a simple yet highly effective transition, and is one of the first glimpses we as an audience get of Francis’s fertile and slightly twisted fantasy world.

I’d rather not delve much deeper into the complexities that arise throughout the story, because this is a story best experienced without any knowledge to spoil twists that are at times predictable but sometimes startling. I will say that this is a somewhat unevenly paced story, both in its novelization and subsequently in the screenplay, but there are moments of brightness and brilliance, of darkness and delight that salvage it from spiraling into the purgatory of irredeemable cinematic schlock. Plus, the cast is fantastic: Emile Hirsch, in what I think is one of his first big screen appearances, plays Francis, while Kieran Culkin plays Tim. Both do a remarkable job in their respective roles; Hirsch displays a remarkable emotional depth in his performance and this younger Culkin plays truculent quite well, although he does have a bit of what I call “Christian Bale feral weasel mouth” that I found a bit distracting.

Jena Malone portrays Francis’s crush, Margie Flynn, a young girl with a horrifying secret that contributes amply to the movie’s darkness. She is a complex creature well beyond Francis’s level of understanding but desperate for his earnest attempts to accept and comfort her. Malone’s portrayal of Margie is suitably portentous, as I had expected. Malone is an actress I am quite surprised has not broken into the Hollywood elite yet. I first saw her in another book-to-movie adaptation, Bastard Out of Carolina, which makes Altar Boys look like Alice in Wonderland. Malone played the eponymous character of that movie. She was 10 years old at the time of filming (which many considered quite scandalous because of the graphic and disturbing nature of many of her scenes), and I don’t think many adult actors with years of experience could have given a more moving performance. I really hope Malone continues to seek out films that challenge her. I suspect she has the makings of another Jodie Foster or Meryl Streep.

Speaking of Jodie Foster, she appears in this movie as well, as Sister Assumpta. I make no bones about this: I adore Foster. To me, her career is representative of how you play the Hollywood game correctly. I own more movies from her oeuvre than any other actor, and I’ve seen one of her Oscar-winning performances more times than I’ve seen any other film (what do you think of that, Clarice?). It was delightful seeing her as the “baddie” in this film, at least in the minds of Tim and Francis and their friends. This evil side of her character really shines through in her voice-over work for the animated sequences (actually, all of the actors recorded remarkable voice-over contributions for McFarlane’s animations).

My least favorite part of Foster’s performance? How she makes a Kevin Costner-esque accent faux pas that is rather noticeable and, I’m sorry to say, unforgivable from an actor of her caliber. The first time we see Sister Assumpta, she speaks with a slight Irish lilt. Because, you know, all nuns apparently have to be Irish…even ones from the American South. However, in subsequent scenes, the accent simply isn’t there. Did the director decide partially through the film that he didn’t want Foster to sport the accent anymore, and they didn’t have time to go back and redo that first scene? Or did she just wake up one morning and forget that she wanted Assumpta to be Irish? Either way, it irritated me in that ridiculous way that such ridiculous nit-picks do. Still, Jodie Foster in a nun’s habit delighted me for inexplicable reasons.

Probably the only other immediately recognizable name in this film is Vincent D’Onofrio, who appears as Father Casey, a somewhat bedraggled, smoking, swearing, Magic Eight Ball-consulting priest and only semi-positive male role model in the entire film. He’s really not in the movie long enough to make much of an impact, but it was great seeing him in a far less jarring role than the last time he appeared in the DVDregs.

DVD Special Features: The special features are an interesting mix of how to do things right and completely botch things when preparing materials for DVD release. The commentary track, which features director Peter Care and screenwriter Jeff Stockwell, is a rather banal offering. It’s not that they sound ignorant or disinterested. In fact, they seem quite engaged in discussing the various aspects of this film that they feel might be of interest to listeners. I fear, however, that I am becoming anesthetized to the whole concept of the feature-length commentary. I found that my attention wandered massively several times while listening. Care has a lovely English accent, which is quite mellifluous on the ears, and Stockwell is very passionate about giving the utmost respect to Fuhrman’s original work while still making it his own and making it film-friendly, but I don’t imagine this is a track I would ever want to revisit.

There’s a Sundance Channel-produced show, Anatomy of a Scene, which I thought at first would be a typical sunshine-pumping featurette. Instead, it was just as its title indicates: the anatomy of a particular scene from the movie. The director, screenwriter, producers, editors, and actors break down a particular moment in the movie, give you details about how it was filmed, and then put it all together into the final shot at the end. Along the way, you also get other tidbits of information about the film in general. It’s kind of a truncated version of the director commentary, but slightly more interesting.

The DVD also gives you the option of viewing just McFarlane’s animated sections together, which I thought was a nice touch. You can also view the opening credit illustrations one at a time, which I guess is interesting but a bit tedious.So, too, are the production notes and biography sections. Not to be churlish, but I prefer to read books and watch DVDs. I don’t like when the two mix and I have to read my bonus materials.

Then you get your deleted scenes. Still haven’t found any scenes from this section that didn’t deserve to be deleted. There’s a second featurette, which is where the sunshine-pumping comes in, along with a series of interviews with various members of the cast and crew. I found these two things to be duplicative and a bit confusing as to why they weren’t just combined into one longer offering. Seemed like a bit of poor bonus material preparation to me. Finally throw in the theatrical trailer, the television spots, as well as some DVD-ROM features that for some reason wouldn’t play on my computer and you’ve got a predictable bonus buffet with some tasty morsels hidden among some rather bland, warmed-over mush.

Final Verdict: This is a first, denizens. I’m still undecided as to what I want to do with this DVD. Obviously, my life has continued to go without giving this movie much thought beyond buying the DVD and then never watching it. But sitting down and watching it now, even with its somewhat lackluster special features, has left me feeling both glad to have revisited this story and torn as to whether or not I’d really want to let it go. I still see the potential for discovery in additional viewings. Plus, seeing those filming locations that are so ingrained into my memory still makes me smile. So I’m going to give this one a temporary reprieve. Those dangerous altar boys can stick around a little longer in my collection…just as long as they give Sister Assumpta a break every now and then. I’d rather not have an irate nun roaring through my collection on her moped.