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The Dangerous Lives of Altar Boys
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Length:1h 45mins
Cast:Peter Care, Kieran Culkin, Jena Malone, Emile Hirsch

No, this isn't the tawdry, torn-from-the-headlines melodrama its title suggests. Dangerous Lives is actually one of the 2002's most surprising little movies -- a sensitive, tragicomic, and thoroughly enjoyable coming-of-age story set in a predominantly Irish-Catholic parochial school during the 1970s. Its dual protagonists are mischievous students Tim Sullivan (Kieran Culkin) and Francis Doyle (Emile Hirsch), whose rebellion against stern authority figures Sister Assumpta (Jodie Foster) and Father Casey (Vincent D'Onofrio) initially takes the form of a homemade and somewhat pornographic comic book they entitle "The Atomic Trinity." When their artistic endeavor is confiscated, the young teens plan a caper that will make them legendary -- if it doesn't backfire and cause more harm than intended. As helmed by veteran music-video director Peter Care, Lives is just a wee bit schizophrenic: While the most dazzling sequences are dynamic animated interludes (produced by Spawn creator Todd McFarlane) bringing the boys' comic-book fantasies to life, Care also crafts scenes of almost unutterable poignancy, including one that involves Francis and his erstwhile girlfriend (the radiant, soulful Jena Malone). Foster, who co-produced, seems almost laughably miscast as the peg-legged nun who persecutes her hell-raising young charges, but her intensity in the role is disarming, and Sister Assumpta emerges as one of her most memorable characterizations. Virtually unassailable in regard to setting, period, and character, this modest but engrossing film will yield new pleasures with each viewing at home. The DVD sports a commentary by Care and screenwriter Jeff Stockwell, along with a collection of the animated sequences (discussed by McFarlane), a Sundance Channel "Anatomy of a Scene" featurette, deleted scenes, cast and filmmaker interviews, and a gallery of concept drawings for the animated scenes. Ed Hulse

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