NETFLIX FIX: 'The Dangerous Lives of Altar Boys' promises to excite
For some, faith is easy. Belief in a higher power comes naturally, and any errant thoughts that prod against that system are quickly dismissed. For others, faith is a little less black and white. Questions arise, beliefs are easily shaken, and the ability to reconcile faith and the tragedies of life becomes harder and harder.
This struggle highlights "The Dangerous Lives of Altar Boys" (Rated R, 105 minutes), a sensitive and freewheeling coming-of-age tale based on Chris Fuhrman's semiautobiographical novel.
The film focuses on Francis and Tim, a superb and very young Emile Hirsch and Kieran Culkin, best buds who swig stolen booze and generally waste their time together.
Joined by two other friends, the gang dreams of girls, freedom and becoming superheroes in their very own comic book.
Freedom from who? That would be Sister Assumpta, played by Jodie Foster - a strict, peg-legged nun at school who turns her nose and gets in the boys' faces whenever the youngsters waver from the godly path she prays that they follow.
The boys come together to realize their superhero fantasies and knock Assumpta down a couple notches in their very own comic book starring themselves as roided-out superheroes with codenames like Captain Asskicker, Skeleton Boy and Major Screw.
Their collective work - even though it features four characters - is entitled The Atomic Trinity. The heroes, whom we get to see in action as cutaway animation scenes that parallel our real heroes' journey through Catholic school, face Nunzilla, a maniacal reimagining of Sister Assumpta.
The drawings and adventures are crude, rude and exactly what you'd think a 14-year-old boy would want in a comic book.
Outside their collaboration on The Atomic Trinity, the gang gets into the usual shenanigans you can expect - drinking, smoking, having various sexual escapades - all in the name of growing up and fighting the most cruel of teenage enemies: boredom.
Idle hands, though, provide just the right amount of trouble for the faith of these boys to be shaken.
Francis, the de facto leader of the pack, begins his first awkward relationship with Margie, played by indie queen Jena Malone, an innocent-looking classmate. After they have their first kiss and are in the throes of young love, though, it becomes clear Margie isn't what she seems when she reveals a secret sin that more than rattles Francis.
A series of pranks also ups the ante between the gang and Sister Assumpta. The first: a kidnapping and ransom of a beloved school statue. The second: an asinine plot to drug (with Nyquil) a mountain lion the group saw on a school field trip before transporting it to campus grounds in the hopes of scaring their holy overlords.
The second plan is the brainchild of Tim, a kind of wild child who seems especially doomed in the eyes of Sister Assumpta.
When it becomes clear that Tim is serious with his quest to kidnap the cougar, Francis and the boys cry foul.
"Get real," says Francis, starting a skirmish between the best friends. A chance walk by a dog that has been hit by a car later brings the two back together. "Don't you ever tell me to get real," Tim says through tears, carrying the abandoned creature.
It's these moments in the movie that are especially revealing of our characters. Tim is wild and full of abandon, but he believes in greatness and doing something for the chance of being great.
"Risk leads to greatness," Tim says as he jumps into the mountain lion's den after Francis knocks the creature out with a Nyquil-laced blowgun dart. The limits of faith are truly tested when the mountain lion scheme goes awry, though.
William Blake's poetry, especially his ever-famous "The Tyger," is prominent throughout the movie, providing a nice cherry on top of the struggle the boys are facing in their quest for faith.
Tyger! Tyger! burning bright
In the forests of the night,
What immortal hand or eye
Could frame thy fearful symmetry?
A little heavy-handed but thoroughly enjoyable as a fresh, coming-of-age tale, the movie provides a great exposition on a true teenage experience.