The Dangerous Lives of Altar Boys directed by Peter Care, written by Jeff Stockwell, based on the book by Chris Fuhrman, produced by Jodie Foster, Meg LeFauve and Jay Shapiro, with Foster, Kieran Culkin, Emile Hirsch, Jena Malone and Vincent D'Onofrio. 110 minutes. An Egg Pictures production. A ThinkFilm release. Opens Friday (June 21). For venues and times, see First-Run Movies, page 84. Rating: NNN
Jodie Foster has always shown an affinity for boys' stories. Her directing debut was Little Man Tate, about a boy genius and his single mother. As a young woman she was the quintessential tomboy actor, and in her personal life she's the mother of two boys. That insight into garçons is one of the reasons The Dangerous Lives Of Altar Boys works.
Foster produced and stars in Altar Boys, which is based on the late Chris Fuhrman's 1994 novel. (Fuhrman was struck down by cancer while working on the final revisions.) The film focuses on Tim Sullivan (Kieran Culkin) and Francis Doyle (Emile Hirsch), two Catholic school teens who love to torture their nemesis, teacher Sister Assumpta (Jodie Foster). She even appears as the monstrous villain in the comic book they lovingly create after school.
The boys' friendship is tested when Francis falls for Margie Flynn (Life As A House's Jena Malone) and Tim plans a dangerous prank.
We've seen this story before: boy finds love and dumps his less mature buddy, who, feeling left behind, goes out and does something rash. But it's compelling here because Culkin's and Hirsch's performances convince us of the reality of these slightly hyperactive and bitter and appropriately smug kids.
Culkin, who's been impressive in films like The Mighty and The Cider House Rules, once again takes over the screen. He's a younger, angrier Tobey Maguire, and he serves as the perfect model for newcomer Hirsch, who follows his lead playing the dreamier, more vulnerable pal.
Altar Boys' animated sequences have attracted lots of attention; the boys' comic book comes to life thanks to the work of Canadian-born comic-book artist Todd McFarlane. It's a brave and surprisingly effective choice on the part of first-time director Peter Care, whose previous work includes award-winning videos and TV commercials.
The animated sections are kinetic and raw, and they serve as windows into the macho souls of the young heroes.
They also get Care off the hook, allowing him to slow the action and focus on the drama playing out between the two boys and, more importantly, the complex and tender relationship between Francis and Margie. That love story is the most interesting thread, keeping us engaged when the rest of the film spirals into predictability near the end. firstname.lastname@example.org
ALSO OPENING: BIG BAD LOVE -- CHERISH -- JUWANNA MANN -- LILO & STITCH -- MINORITY REPORT -- For details, see reviews