The Secret Lives of Altar Boys: James Bridges
June 21, 2002 at 04:00 AM EDT

Movies in which Catholic teenagers rebel against the orthodoxy of parochial school tend to play by their own strict rules. They celebrate the rituals of adolescent naughtiness — drinking! copping a feel! ridiculing the nuns! — while taking the moral measure of that very same bad behavior. Set in the 1970s, The Dangerous Lives of Altar Boys tries to establish a casually organic, stand-by-me flow, even as it turns the adventures of two high school friends, precocious heartthrob Francis (Emile Hirsch) and bratty daredevil Tim (Kieran Culkin), into lumbering parables of lost innocence.

Based on a novel by Chris Fuhrman, who died in 1991, the movie is an overstuffed compendium of teen-Catholic-movie dogma. We get Jodie Foster overacting as a one-legged nun, a tender courtship that dances around a Sinful Secret, and an ultimately disastrous prank to spring a cougar from the local zoo. It’s all way too heavy-handed, though nicely acted by Hirsch, Culkin, and, especially, Jena Malone. In an innovative twist, the kids’ comic-book fantasies come to life in animated sequences (drawn by ”Spawn”’s Todd McFarlane) that are like the Bible gone madly Marvel. C+

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