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Animation and Drama in <i>'The Dangerous Lives of Altar Boys'</i> - 2002-07-07

Jodie Foster co-stars in and produces a bittersweet, irreverent coming-of-age drama adapted for the screen from a critically acclaimed novel. Alan Silverman has a look at 'The Dangerous Lives of Altar Boys'

The time is the 1970s; the place "middle America," where a trio of 14-year-old Catholic school classmates, two boys and a girl, teeters on the brink of adolescence. Tim is smart but bored and always gets into trouble; Margie is a tomboy just discovering her femininity; and Francis is the creative one who dreams of becoming a comic book artist and sketches out their fantasies in vivid, superhero style.

For the villain they pick on Sister Assumpta; the stern nun in charge of their school life becomes the fearsome "Nunzilla." Jodie Foster plays the much-maligned Sister Assumpta and also produced The Dangerous Lives of Altar Boys. Foster finds it a refreshing change from the way Hollywood usually treats stories about teenagers.

"I think it was the rawness. I think that's what we really wanted was raw, truthful, real and whether you like it or not, this is the true, very complicated characters," she said. "Not just a sort of cardboard cutout of what adults think kids are at this age."

"Francis, do you know anything about our Saint Agatha?"
"She was really good looking and she promised God she would be a virgin, but then some guy wanted to marry her and when she wouldn't . . ."
"Stop! I won't tolerate any more disrespect from you. You are on a terrible downward spiral. He sees in your heart. He knows what you do. I fear for you."

"I liked playing the villain and hopefully, because it's such strange casting, it allowed her to be somebody more complicated and more than just normally would meet the eye, meaning, you know, a big, strong, scary nun in black," says Ms. Foster. "I wanted to play somebody who obviously had a past and to be able to see and glean the motivations behind her need to oppress them with her authority."

"Listen to this. 'the nakedness of woman is the work of God.'"
"Show me whatever that is."
"It's my Dad's, Sister."
"William Blake: a little advanced, Mr. Sullivan, don't you think?"
"Not really, sister. it's written simply enough for a 6-year-old."
"So are the instructions for a handgun. Blake is a very dangerous thinker. Now give it to me."

The film rests on the young shoulders of its teenaged co-stars: Kieran Culkin as mischievous Tim; Jenna Malone is Margie; and Emile Hirsch plays budding artist Francis. "I was really happy that the kids got so much screen time," he says. "There's virtually no parents at all. You never see any of the main characters talking to their parents or asking them for advice or anything. They all rely on each other."

"My house is sort of haunted. There is this woman who died there before my family bought it and sometimes I wake up and see her come in and she sort of just hangs out at the foot of my bed."
"Do you get scared?"
"No. Do you think I'm crazy?"

The film's title may suggest the current investigations of and allegations against some Catholic priests; but director Peter Care says there is no connection. He explains The Dangerous Lives of Altar Boys is the title of the novel from which it was adapted, written by Chris Fuhrman and published in 1994. "It actually has little to do with religion. The kids are fighting against the idea of authority, not the idea of a religion or a faith."

"The context in these boys' lives is the Catholic Church. It's where they go to school, it's the nun that bugs them and in some ways, it's the rituals they use in their animations, for example, and in their everyday lives. But it's by no means a treatise on the Catholic religion," says Ms. Foster.

Co-star and producer Jodie Foster adds that, despite its 1970s setting, the film is not about nostalgia for a simpler time. "We wanted to be careful not to label the movie too much like a 70s movie because then it might take people out of the story a bit," says Ms. Foster. "It's a timeless story and it should pertain to everyone's lives. For these kids, of course, the 70s to them is a time of real questioning, all authority. In the 50s and into the 60s we accepted things like crewcuts and going in the army and catholicism with all of its ambiguities; but these kids are in the process of saying, 'no, I'm sorry, this doesn't work for me.'"

"I can't do this without you. Are you with me, altar boy? Are you going to live dangerously?"
"Something like that."

The Dangerous Lives of Altar Boys also features Vincent D'Onofrio. And popular comic book artist Todd McFarlane animates the fantasy sequences.