The Dangerous Lives of Altar Boys

The peril referred to in the title of “The Dangerous Lives of Altar Boys” has literal meaning in the film. But more precisely, it’s a spiritual and emotional danger, the danger faced not just by altar boys but by all adolescent males.

The kids in Peter Care’s engaging film are students at a Catholic school in the 1970s. They face the overly strict teacher Sister Assumpta (Jodie Foster), apathetic parents, and their own hormones. Especially their own hormones. If you’ve ever been 13 and a boy, the words and actions of these boys will ring painfully true.

The film primarily follows Francis Doyle (Emile Hirsch), a likable lad with a rebellious, mischievous streak that is constantly encouraged by his best friend Tim Sullivan (Kieran Culkin). Any misdemeanor Francis has considered committing, chances are Tim is already working up plans for it.

They, along with two other friends, want to be comic book artists, and the superhero personas they’ve created for themselves appear in the film in animated segments (done by Todd McFarlane), with fantasy plots paralleling reality. Meanwhile, Francis has a thing for Margie Flynn (Jena Malone), a sweet young girl who already has a past.

The inciting action is a trip to the local zoo, where Tim and Francis become fascinated by a cougar and decide the best thing to do is to steal it and put it in Sister Assumpta’s office. The rest of the film has that plan in the background, with the turmoil of teen-agerhood occupying the foreground.

Screenwriters Jeff Stockwell and Michael Petroni, working from Chris Fuhrman’s novel, have formed a vivid, accurate portrayal of hormonal adolescence and its attendant crises. My one major complaint is that not enough attention is given to the character of Tim, who is a supporting figure, yes, but one who figures prominently in the main action. His jealousy when Francis starts hanging out too much with Margie is one of the truest things in the film, but it’s hardly dealt with. More background on his family — other than a cursory nod to his father’s alcoholism — would have helped make his destiny more poignant, too. In fact, with Kieran Culkin’s very insightful performance, one would not be out of line in wishing the self-destructive Tim were the protagonist, and the rather less interesting Francis relegated to a supporting bit.

Nonetheless, quibbles about a film as humorous and innocent as this one are just that: quibbles. For while some opportunities for real intrigue may have been wasted, many others are seized upon to great effect, and the movie is good.

B (; R, a lot of harsh profanity, some cartoon nudity.)