First of all, that red flag of a title: "The Dangerous Lives of Altar Boys." It came with the book on which their film is based, say the creators of the just-released drama. And they're thrilled nobody forced them to change it.

And, no, the decision to release "Altar Boys" amid reports of rampant sexual abuse within the Roman Catholic Church wasn't an attempt to capitalize on current headlines. Filming was completed two years ago, but the release was delayed after director Peter Care and animator Todd 7McFarlane needed more time to work on the film's elaborate animated sequences.

The two altar boys in question do face danger, but not from any kind of sexual predators. There is a priest in "Altar Boys," but he's more befuddled and repressed than threatening. The real enemy is a one-legged, motorcycle-driving nun--played by two-time Oscar winner Jodie Foster--who becomes a figment of our 14-year-old hero's elaborate cartoon revenge fantasies.

You read that right: cartoon drawing heroes, a sinister Sister, animation by the creator of "Spawn" and an elaborate plot to steal a cougar. Step right up and get your tickets now, folks. The line forms on the right. "It's a very tricky subject, especially when you're talking to people about what happens in the movie," says director Peter Care, best known for his work in music videos and commercials. "Lots of people with money (producers) run a mile.

"I hope people will want to see this movie for what it is. Once they do, they'll know it's not a molestation story. I actually think a lot of people are going to be attracted to this film because it's different." You might say that. A coming-of-age story set in the 1970s, "Altar Boys" is based on the novel by Chris Fuhrman, who died of cancer before it was published. The film stars Kieran Culkin ("The Cider House Rules") and Emile Hirsch (TV's "Houdini") as Tim and Francis, a pair of slightly rebellious 14-year-olds learning about life, first love, William Blake and the finer points of cougar theft. Jena Malone plays Margie, Francis' complex girlfriend; Vincent D'Onofrio is Father Casey; and Foster plays the tough-as-iron Sister Assumpta (called "Nunzilla" in her comic incarnation).

Bringing Fuhrman's 1994 novel to the screen meant that first-time feature director Care ended up working with animals, children--albeit very mature ones--established stars and tricky material. "Here's the thing," says Care, an affable Brit from the town of Penzance. "I've been shooting for years so I kind of know what it's like to be on a set. I kind of know cameras and stuff, but it was an incredibly complicated first movie. If I had done a little movie before and gone into 'Altar Boys' with a little more experience, it might have helped the process a little bit, but I was a fast learner."

The animated sequences featuring superheroes whose activities parallel the lives of Tim, Francis, Margie and Sister Assumpta, fell to McFarlane. The Emmy and Grammy award-winning creator of the "Spawn" comic books and HBO series appreciated the fact he wasn't being asked to repeat himself. "This city has a tendency to always sort of want to narrow cast you," said McFarlane. "They go, 'Ah, dark movie animation, that's what he does.' In this case, although they wanted an edge to it, they didn't want fluffy dancing frogs, but they didn't want 'Spawn' either."

In fact, they wanted the kinds of superheroes that would logically spring from the mind of a 14-year-old boy--transforming bigger-than-life creatures with names like Major Screw and the Muscle. It may seem a bit more sophisticated than what a teen would logically dream up, but director Care figures Francis has a majorly vivid imagination. "Yes it's way more sophisticated than what a boy could put together," agrees Care. "I did some research and took a look at what boys were doing drawing cartoons and trying to make little animation films. It was like, 'Mr. Amoeba Man Climbs a Stepladder.' That was about all their technology could take them to.

"I wanted the animation to feel like we were inside his head. This was like Francis thinking a $40 million animation movie in his head."

Foster, who also co-produced the film through her production company, Egg Pictures, frequently works with first-time directors and writers. Producer Jay Shapiro brought Foster the script with Care and screenwriter Jeff Stockwell already attached.

Foster didn't know the book, but after reading Stockwell's script she quickly signed on. Her decision to take a role in the film helped the producers bring in funding, said Care. "I was really thinking about boys--about raising boys and how different they are and what are the best ways to keep them safe," says Foster, a mother of two sons, "to keep them safe emotionally, spiritually and physically.

"I was probably closer to (Margie) than to the boys," she adds. "I was not outwardly rebellious, but I had a dark inner life, just trying to figure out all those things girls have to figure out when they're 14. It was a very dark place for me. I don't think I could live through it now."

Malone, who won legal emancipation from her mother around the time she was making "Altar Boys," agreed that the midteen years are difficult even under ordinary circumstances. "Unconsciously, you don't know that you're going through things at that age. You're just sort of affected by it," she says. "It was hard not to connect with the script, it's so true, so raw and so beautiful. We sort of wanted to keep that sentiment."

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