The Dangerous Lives of Altar Boys
A Film by Peter Care
written by Jeff Stonewell and Michael Petroni


The new film from Peter Care, written by Jeff Stonewell and Michael Petroni from the novel by Chris Fuhrman is an innovative and well-made film that contains some powerful moments, but suffers from an overabundance of elements. The performances are fine, the direction generally restrained and careful, the production values high and the writing spare and accurate. The problem lies in failing to adapt the novel so as to make it into a concise and compelling film.

This is a perennial problem with literary adaptations, and one I have discussed before. The Dangerous Lives of Altar Boys is not the first production that has foundered on this reef, nor will it be the last. The leisurely pace and wealth of detail that can make reading a complex novel so enjoyable do not translate easily to film.

Pacing is not a problem here. In fact, the story is so full of incident that the rush from event to event sometimes overwhelms the subtler points of characterization and the development and transformation of relationships. There is a conflict between trying to get the story told and trying give a compelling, emotionally satisfying picture of the complex and delicate psychological dance among the various characters.

One result of this is that situations that my have been completely believable in the novel, slowly developed over several hundred pages, can - like the climactic event here - seem somewhat melodramatic when pared down to the limited amount of detail and background that can be included in a film.

The limitations placed on the complexity of character is another aspect of adaptation with which filmmakers have to deal. A notable example of this is in the depiction of the character of Sister Assumpta (played by co-producer Jodie Foster after her first choice for the role dropped out).

Assumpta is a sincere, well-meaning, dedicated woman. Her faith is her life and her devotion to her calling is all-consuming. The conflict between her values, her world-view and that of her young students, and the wrenching failure of communication between them could have been the stuff of a fascinating film in itself.

Assumpta, with her wooden leg, her repressed demeanor and her profound frustration at her failure to make her charges understand what she understands, is an intriguing character about whom a viewer can't help but wish to know more. But she is only one of five or six major characters, all of whom demand attention and time in the course of this brief, hour and forty-five minute film. As a result, the complicated interplay between her character and the others feels incompletely represented and therefore somewhat contrived.

The chief failure in this area is with the character of Tim Sullivan (Kieran Culkin). Tim is a central character, the instigator of most of the action in the film, and the catalyst for the coming-of-age transformation of his close friend Francis Doyle (Emile Hirsch). In order to be able to accept Tim as something more than a convenient plot-device, we need to know who is, to see why he does the things he does.

Unfortunately, the film gives us little to go on. We know he is daring and rebellious; we know his parents argue and are getting divorced; we know he has a personality conflict with Sister Assumpta, at least partly based in his own authority problems; but we don't get much insight into the foundations of these character traits, the meanings he attaches to these events in his life that would connect us more directly to who he is and bring him more fully to life. He becomes a sort of generic "acting-out adolescent."

By contrast, the characters of Francis Doyle and Margie Flynn (Jena Malone) are drawn with much more specificity. The unfolding of their relationship, even with its rather extreme and melodramatic twists, is much more accessible because we are given time and detail to understand the characters in a deeper way. Because we spend more time with them and they have more of a chance to expose themselves, they can become more real for us.

Which is not to say that even their characters - particularly Margie's - are without opacities. Margie's story is harrowing at the outset, of a family secret that can't help but have a profound psychological effect on her. Her later recasting of the story in different terms makes it no less disturbing - just disturbing in a different way.

A primal experience such as she has undergone logically ought to have a complex and lasting effect on her. If it doesn't, there ought to be some explanation why it hasn't. Otherwise a troubling and serious situation which ought to be treated with respect and sympathy is discounted as simply another mechanism to advance the narrative.

There are a lot of plot lines in The Dangerous Lives of Altar Boys, not by any means too many for a novel, but certainly too many to explore in the depth of detail the characters, issues and performers here deserve. In the end the multiplicity of ambiguously and incompletely drawn characters and unresolved story lines becomes a distraction from the affecting and touching stories at the heart of the film.

The performances from the young cast are quite good. First among equals is Hirsch, whose portrayal of wistful, half-knowing, half-innocent adolescence really carries this film. He is the character about whom we know the most and in whom any inconsistencies of characterization would be most glaring. Hirsch's ability to create a sincere, sympathetic, coherent depiction of Francis spills over into all the other characters with whom he interacts, investing them with his own life and integrity,

Jena Malone - a seasoned actress of fifteen when she made this film - does the wry Catholic schoolgirl to near perfection. Her combination of innocence and experience (referenced in numerous allusions to WillIam Blake), and her relative maturity in contrast to the boys with whom she interacts, are delicately drawn. Malone manages to imbue the cataclysmic events at the center of her character and her reaction to them with a level of natural sincerity that raises them above the level of melodrama they might have evoked in less skilled hands.

Kieran Culkin is a charismatic presence in the film. Although Tim's origins and evolution remain shrouded in mystery in a way that makes his pivotal role seem a bit artificial, Culkin brings enough simplicity and honesty to individual scenes to make them work, sometimes in a very powerful way. The anarchic exploits of which Tim is the ringleader seem exaggerated for a suburban fourteen-year-old, but Culkin's energy and conviction gives them an air of truth that mostly overcomes any improbability. As a foil for exposing Francis's unfolding sense of himself, Culkin builds a noisy, solid presence for him to work against.

Jodie Foster does such a good job with Sister Assumpta that I found myself wishing more than once that the movie were re-written from her point of view. She manages to pack so much complex emotion, so much humanity into each of her brief scenes that she creates a powerful counterpoint to the role of comic-book villainess into which the film's young protagonists try (literally) to cast her.

Her struggle against both her identification with and rejection of her young charges emotional turmoil is communicated with touching economy. Her own confrontations with longing, with acceptance, with hardship and with frustration mirror those of the children she teaches and create a suitably flawed, and very human context for their explorations.

Vincent D'Onofrio is rock-solid in the small but key role of Father Casey. As a relatively pedestrian, practical and pragmatic Priest he offers a contrast to Foster's pious intensity that grounds the film in reality. The matter-of-fact sincerity of his performance, like that of Hirsch, lends credibility and depth to all those with whom he interacts.

The technical aspects of the film show polished low-budget professionalism. Without any of the distracting or self-indulgent flourishes of fabulously expensive camera set ups, sets and design, the film creates an environment that further supports the credibility of the narrative.

An interesting device is the use of animated comic-book sequences - representing a work in progress being created by Francis - to reflect his fictionalized, externalized re-working of the events that take place in the film. Although they could have been merely a distracting gimmick, these bits, full of adolescent exaggeration, grandiosity and melodrama, offer an interesting sort of descant to the main narrative line.

Credit must go to second-time feature director Peter Care for his work with the young actors. It is difficult to restrain the enthusiasms and idiosyncrasies of adolescents - as many execrable performances by actors of this age attest. Care has done that well, without repressing the emotional vulnerability and spontaneity that are the best part of their work.

He has, apparently, guided them without either indulging or unduly repressing them - a fine line to walk. There are a few difficult moments, when script, performer and character don't synchronize as well as they might, but Care keeps up a pace and energy that encourages us to disregard these difficult and not really critical passages.

Given the complications of trying to depict the many events that occur here, the complicated sets of evolving relationships that emerge, the complex and important characters, Care does a fine job working towards giving each of the elements its due. In the end, however, the film is just trying to cover too much in too short a time.

As a director of limited experience, it is unlikely that he had full control over the shooting script, so he can't really be held responsible for its shortcomings. While much of the film is deftly written, with crisp dialogue and an accurate ear for the way kids talk, the confusion of the many layers of narrative complexity ought to have been solved in the writing stage.

First-time screenwriter Jeff Stonewell and his slightly more experienced co-writer Michael Petroni create a lot of compelling drama - as well as some sparkling comedy - in their script, but their attempt to serve too many masters - to include too many important and interesting narrative lines in a 106 minute film - undermines some of their effort.

As I said at the outset, literary adaptations seem to be particularly difficult, and it is no shame to these writers that they stumbled some on their first attempt. And notwithstanding its shortcomings, what the film-making team has created is a watchable, interesting and thought-provoking film, with many touching and evocative moments.

That's my take on it. What's yours?