Peter Care’s The Dangerous Lives of Altar Boys undertakes yet another examination of the restraints of orthodox Western religion. Taking place in the 1970s, the film explores two boys’ rebellion against their repressive Catholic school education.
But if the story is familiar, the compelling protagonists make the issues seem fresh. Francis Doyle (Emile Hirsch) and Tim Sullivan (Kieran Culkin) are at opposite ends of the rebellion continuum. Francis is quiet and introverted, observing the world around him and adapting his actions accordingly. Tim is vocal and extroverted, raising hell wherever he goes. Both boys, however, share a belief that creativity provides the most effective avenue of resistance.
Francis initially seems less interesting than Tim, thoughtful but average. He translates his experiences into comic book form (with illustrations by Todd McFarlane, creator of Spawn). Francis turns his frustrations with Sister “Peg Leg” Assumpta (Jodie Foster) into a gang of motorcycle-riding nuns, and sees Margie Flynn (Jena Malone) as a female superhero, who joins with his own group of four male superheroes, “The Atomic Trinity.”
But just when one suspects that Francis is going the way of stereotype, he doesn’t. While fighting inside a mausoleum, Tim accidentally throws his friend against a statue of Saint Agatha they’ve stolen, breaking its finger. Francis decides to use the finger to blackmail the school, with a note suggesting that God is holding the statue ransom unless the school pays an exorbitant amount of money for its return. Francis’ transformation of this disaster into comedy makes him instantly more sympathetic.
Tim takes a more Nietzschean approach: he wants to tear down the edifice of hypocrisy. He initiates the stealing of the statue, as well as an abduction of a mountain lion to eat Sister Assumpta. In response to a school assignment—calculate triangulation (the Trinity?) in an everyday situation—Tim decides to chainsaw a telephone pole, to crush a bottle they put in its path, while they stand inches away, hoping the pole won’t also obliterate them. The cutting of this pole (which, in shadow, resembles a crucifix) suggests Tim’s aggression against the Catholic imagery that permeates their world. The vandalism is all the more rewarding, in that he’s using a school assignment to undermine its authority.
Beyond his anger, the scheme also indicates Tim’s self-destructive tendencies. He comes from a troubled family, plagued by alcoholism and fighting. We get a glimpse into his home, when Francis comes to visit. The entire front wall of the house is made of glass, and as Francis nears it, he sees Tim’s parents arguing at the far right end of the living room, while Tim sits at the far left, his face inches away from a television set, trying to remove himself from the scene.
Even as Tim is haunted by his dysfunctional family, he and his fellow students, absorbing their lessons quite literally, see Catholic apparitions in their everyday lives. Not all have adverse effects. One female ghost who haunts Margie’s bedroom inclines her toward a more intimate relationship with Francis, who visits her bedroom to see it.
Tormented by an incestuous relationship with her brother, Margie confesses to Francis about it. Alarmed, Francis tells her secret to Tim. But Tim’s reaction is different from what Francis expects. Rather than being appalled, Tim claims that he always liked Margie because she was “weird. Weird in a good way.” Confession, the film seems to say, when freed from its hierarchical relation of the Church, can encourage individuals to know and accept each other.
The Dangerous Lives of Altar Boys investigates the ways the boys simultaneously use and defy their Catholic school training. It’s unclear whether Tim and Francis revolt because Catholicism restricts their “normal” teenage yearnings, or because they need to rebel against something, anything, and the Church is handy. Avoiding a simple answer to such a difficult question, The Dangerous Lives of Altar Boys investigates the complexities in two boys’ lives that their education wants to deny.