PopMatters is moving to WordPress in December. We will continue to publish on this site as we work on the move. We aim to make it a seamless experience for readers.


The Dangerous Lives of Altar Boys (2002)

Chris Robé

Undertakes yet another examination of the restraints of orthodox Western religion.

The Dangerous Lives of Altar Boys

Director: Peter Care
Cast: Kieran Culkin, Jena Malone, Emile Hirsch, Jodie Foster, Jake Richardson, Tyler Long
MPAA rating: R
Studio: ThinkFilm
First date: 2002
US Release Date: 2002-06-14

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.

Please Donate to Help Save PopMatters

PopMatters have been informed by our current technology provider that we have until December to move off their service. We are moving to WordPress and a new host, but we really need your help to fund the move and further development.





The Power of Restraint in Sophie Yanow, Paco Roca, and Elisa Macellari's New Graphic Novels

The magical quality that makes or breaks a graphic novel lies somewhere in that liminal space in which art and literature intersect.


'People of the City' Is an Unrelenting Critique of Colonial Ideology and Praxis

Cyprian Ekwensi's People of the City is a vivid tale of class struggle and identity reclamation in the shadows of colonialism's reign.


1979's 'This Heat' Remains a Lodestone for Avant-Rock Adventure

On their self-titled debut, available for the first time on digital formats, This Heat delivered an all-time classic stitched together from several years of experiments.


'The Edge of Democracy' and Parallels of Political Crises

Academy Award-nominated documentary The Edge of Democracy, now streaming on Netflix, lays bare the political parallels of the rise of Bolsonaro's Brazil with Trump's America.


The Pogues' 'The BBC Sessions 1984-1986' Honors Working-Class Heroes

The Pogues' BBC Sessions 1984-1986 is a welcome chapter in the musical story of these working-class heroes, who reminded listeners of the beauty and dignity of the strong, sooty backs upon which our industrialized world was built.


Mary Halvorson Creates Cacophony to Aestheticize on 'Artlessly Falling'

Mary Halvorson's Artlessly Falling is a challenging album with tracks comprised of improvisational fragments more than based on compositional theory. Halvorson uses the various elements to aestheticize the confusing world around her.


15 Overlooked and Underrated Albums of the 1990s

With every "Best of the '90s" retrospective comes a predictable list of entries. Here are 15 albums that are often overlooked as worthy of placing in these lists, and are too often underrated as some of the best records from the decade.


'A Peculiar Indifference' Takes on Violence in Black America

Pulitzer Prize finalist Elliott Currie's scrupulous investigation of the impacts of violence on Black Americans, A Peculiar Indifference, shows the damaging effect of widespread suffering and identifies an achievable solution.


20 Songs From the 1990s That Time Forgot

Rather than listening to Spotify's latest playlist, give the tunes from this reminiscence of lost '90s singles a spin.


Delightful 'Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day' Is Good Escapism

Now streaming on Amazon Prime, Bharat Nalluri's 2008 romantic comedy, Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day, provides pleasant respite in these times of doom and gloom.


The 10 Best Horror Movie Remakes

The horror genre has produced some remake junk. In the case of these ten treats, the update delivers something definitive.


Flirting with Demons at Home, or, When TV Movies Were Evil

Just in time for Halloween, a new Blu-ray from Kino Lorber presents sparkling 2K digital restorations of TV movies that have been missing for decades: Fear No Evil (1969) and its sequel, Ritual of Evil (1970).


Magick Mountain Are Having a Party But Is the Audience Invited?

Garage rockers Magick Mountain debut with Weird Feelings, an album big on fuzz but light on hooks.


Aalok Bala Revels in Nature and Contradiction on EP 'Sacred Mirror'

Electronic musician Aalok Bala knows the night is not a simple mirror, "silver and exact"; it phases and echoes back, alive, sacred.


Clipping Take a Stab at Horrorcore with the Fiery 'Visions of Bodies Being Burned'

Clipping's latest album, Visions of Bodies Being Burned, is a terrifying, razor-sharp sequel to their previous ode to the horror film genre.


Call Super's New LP Is a Digital Biosphere of Insectoid and Otherworldly Sounds

Call Super's Every Mouth Teeth Missing is like its own digital biosphere, rife with the sounds of the forest and the sounds of the studio alike.


Laura Veirs Talks to Herself on 'My Echo'

The thematic connections between these 10 Laura Veirs songs and our current situation are somewhat coincidental, or maybe just the result of kismet or karmic or something in the zeitgeist.


15 Classic Horror Films That Just Won't Die

Those lucky enough to be warped by these 15 classic horror films, now available on Blu-ray from The Criterion Collection and Kino Lorber, never got over them.

Collapse Expand Reviews

Collapse Expand Features

PM Picks
Collapse Expand Pm Picks

© 1999-2020 PopMatters.com. All rights reserved.
PopMatters is wholly independent, women-owned and operated.