The Dangerous Lives of Altar Boys

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The Dangerous Lives of Altar Boys
The Dangerous Lives of Altar Boys movie.jpg
Theatrical release poster
Directed by Peter Care
Produced by Jodie Foster
Jay Shapiro
Meg LeFauve
Todd McFarlane (Animation)
Screenplay by Jeff Stockwell
Michael Petroni
Based on The Dangerous Lives of Altar Boys
by Chris Fuhrman
Starring Emile Hirsch
Kieran Culkin
Jena Malone
and Jodie Foster
Music by Marco Beltrami
Cinematography Lance Acord
Edited by Chris Peppe
Distributed by THINKFilm
Release dates
  • January 18, 2002 (2002-01-18) (Sundance)
  • June 14, 2002 (2002-06-14) (Limited)
Running time
104 minutes
Country United States
Language English
Budget $12 million[1]
Box office $2,036,599[2]/>

The Dangerous Lives of Altar Boys is a 2002 independent comedy-drama film directed by Peter Care and based on a 1994 semi-autobiographical coming-of-age novel by Chris Fuhrman.[3] The film stars Emile Hirsch, Kieran Culkin, Jena Malone, Jodie Foster, and Vincent D'Onofrio.

The film is about a group of Catholic school friends in the Southern United States in the 1970s who engage in a series of pranks and general mischief. The boys also collaborate on a comic book they call The Atomic Trinity. Interspersed within the film are segments of animated footage based on the comic book.[3]

Fuhrman died of cancer before completing the final revision of the novel.[4] The film is dedicated to his memory.


Set in the 1970s in the rural South, the film follows the lives of protagonist Francis Doyle (Emile Hirsch), and three of his friends, Tim Sullivan (Kieran Culkin), Wade Scalisi (Jake Richardson), and Joey Anderson (Tyler Long). The four boys all attend a private Catholic school named St. Agatha's, which they detest. The boys experiment with smoking and drinking, obsess over girls, and play pranks on their teachers, such as stealing their school's statue of St. Agatha and keeping it in their clubhouse. The four friends dedicate much of their time to a comic book of their own creation titled The Atomic Trinity in order to escape the monotony and avoid the difficulties in their own lives.

After receiving a love note from Francis, which was actually written by Tim, Margie Flynn (Jena Malone) becomes a major character in the film and weaves her way into the lives of these four friends. She and Francis have an obvious connection that progresses into much more. At times, Francis must choose between his friends and Margie, which causes the group of friends to fall apart. The boys' lives are also translated into segments of animation based on the characters of The Atomic Trinity: Brakken, The Muscle, Captain Asskicker, and Major Screw; Nunzilla, based on their peglegged, overly repressive Catholic school teacher Sister Assumpta (Jodie Foster); and Sorcerella, based on Margie Flynn.

After a school field trip to the zoo, Tim and Francis have the idea of playing another prank on Sister Assumpta. They decide to drug the cougar at the local zoo and then transport it to Sister Assumpta's office to scare her. When they learn how serious Tim and Francis are, the other half of the Atomic Trinity wimp out, which leaves an unlikely group of friends consisting of Margie, Tim, and Francis. Francis soon learns that Margie had been sexually assaulted by her own brother. During gym class, Donny (Arthur Bridges), Margie's older brother, bullies Tim during class. Tim, out of pressure and his own impulsive nature, insults Donny for molesting his own sister. He regrets telling Donny, and then tells Francis who becomes angry with him. Donny takes Tim and Francis's comic, The Atomic Trinity and gives it to the nun. The violent, blasphemous and inappropriate drawings in the notebook cause Tim and Francis to be suspended, pending expulsion from the school.

In an act of final retribution, Tim, Francis, Wade, and Joey attempt to steal a cougar to place inside the school to cover up a wrecking of the school they did that night. At the zoo, a makeshift tranquilizer created from several narcotic drugs is used to put the cougar to sleep. The other three boys go down to the gate to retrieve the cougar in a cage, while Tim impulsively climbs over the fence into the cougar's den. He checks to see if the cougar is alive, and happily replies that it is. When the other boys reach the gate to retrieve the cougar, another cougar leaps at Tim, mauling him to death. At Tim's funeral, Francis quotes the poem "The Tyger" by William Blake, whom Sister Assumpta earlier condemned as a "dangerous thinker". Francis places the book at the stolen statue of St. Agatha in their hideout, and starts a new comic series dedicated entirely to the character based on Tim, Skeleton Boy.



In order to adapt the book effectively, director Peter Care and producer Jay Shapiro decided to use segments of animation throughout the film. Since most of the book is from Francis' perspective and takes place in his mind, they needed to find a way to stay true to this "internal narrative". "Animation seemed like a natural way to go in and out of this interior world and use that as the thread that ties everything together," says Shapiro.[5] The sequences were created by Todd McFarlane, and they are visually similar to basic superhero comic strips. Screenwriter Jeff Stockwell helped to create the storyline for the animated sequences.

Cinematography is done by Lance Acord, who also worked on Being John Malkovich and Buffalo 66. Production design was done by Gideon Pointe, who also worked on Buffalo 66, as well as American Psycho.[5]


Casting the characters of Francis Doyle and Tim Sullivan was essential to the film's success. Filmmakers say that Emile Hirsch was the first actor that had that innocence and naivete that they were looking for. Similarly, filmmakers believed that Kieran Culkin had a similar personality to Tim. "I think he is going through a lot of similar things [in his own life]," states Jodie Foster, producer and star of the film.[5]

Neither filmmakers nor Foster had planned on her also playing the part of the stern Catholic school teacher and headmistress, Sister Assumpta, as well as being producer. Foster was somehow attracted to the role, and called producing partner Meg LeFauve up with the offer to play this role, who graciously accepted, saying that it's not "traditional casting to see a young beautiful woman in that kind of a role."[5]


Although the novel by Chris Fuhrman was set in 1970s Savannah, Georgia, the filmmakers wanted a more "universal look" and decided not to specify a place. The filming took place in South Carolina and North Carolina.[3] There was also a lot of debate about whether the characters should have Southern accents, but to keep with this "universal feeling," the producers decided against any strong accents.

Reception and awards[edit]

The film has received fairly good praise for an independent film. The New York Times called it a "bracingly truthful" coming-of-age film from the directorial debut of Peter Care.[3] According to critics, the film takes one back to those awkward stages in life, a place most are not too keen on returning to, with ease and compassion. However, the film does have its flaws, according to a New York Times reviewer who wrote that "the movie struggles to compare the boys' comic-book vision with William Blake's Songs of Innocence and of Experience and Songs of Experience, becoming its one glaringly off-key note."[3]

Roger Ebert gave the film two and a half stars, calling it "an honorable film with good intentions."[6] Ebert goes on to say that the screenplay is trying too hard to impress and falls short of achieving the "emotional payoff" it is searching for.[6]

In 2002, the film and director Care won the award for Best New Filmmaker from the Boston Society of Film Critics. In 2003, the film won the Independent Spirit Award for Best First Feature.[7]

Rotten Tomatoes gives the film a rating of 77%, based on various critical reviews[8] with the consensus: "The inter-cutting of animation by Spawn's creator, Todd McFarlane, doesn't always work, but the performances by the young actors capture the pains of growing up well."


The soundtrack was composed by Marco Beltrami and was released in 2002 by Milan Records. A good part of the songs on the soundtrack were specifically written and performed for this film by Queens of the Stone Age guitarist Joshua Homme. In addition, the Crosby, Stills and Nash song "Do It for the Others" lets the audience know what the time period and setting probably are.[9]

  1. "The Atomic Trinity" - Joshua Homme
  2. "The Atomic Trinity vs. Heaven's Devils" - Marco Beltrami
  3. "The Empty House" - Marco Beltrami
  4. "The Couch" - Marco Beltrami
  5. "Hanging (aka Ramble Off)" - Joshua Homme
  6. "Margie's Confession" - Marco Beltrami
  7. "The Atomic Trinity vs. Heaven's Devils, Round II" - Marco Beltrami
  8. "St. Agatha" - Marco Beltrami
  9. "On the Road Again" - Canned Heat
  10. "Francis and Margie" - Joshua Homme
  11. "Stoned" - Joshua Homme
  12. "Dead Dog, Part II" - Marco Beltrami
  13. "Skeleton Boy is Born" - Marco Beltrami
  14. "Do It for the Others" - Stephen Stills
  15. "Story of the Fish" - Marco Beltrami
  16. "For the Gods / Act Like Cougars" - Marco Beltrami
  17. "Torn Apart" - Marco Beltrami
  18. "Someone is Coming" - Marco Beltrami
  19. "Eulogy" - Marco Beltrami
  20. "All the Same" - Joshua Homme


  1. ^ "Box Office". 
  2. ^ "Box Office Mojo". 
  3. ^ a b c d e Holde, Stephen (June 14, 2002). "Film Review: Altar Boys Will Be Altar Boys, and They're Drawing Comics, Too". The New York Times. 
  4. ^ "The Dangerous Lives of Altar Boys." Barnes & Noble. 10 February 2015.
  5. ^ a b c d Care, P. (2002) The Dangerous Lives of Altar Boys [DVD], Culver City, CA: Sony Pictures.
  6. ^ a b Ebert, Roger (June 21, 2002). "The Dangerous Lives of Altar Boys". 
  7. ^ "The Dangerous Lives of Altar Boys". Internet Movie Database. 
  8. ^ "The Dangerous Lives Of Altar Boys". Rotten Tomatoes. 
  9. ^ "The Dangerous Lives of Altar Boys Soundtrack". Soundtrack Collector. 2002. 

External links[edit]