”You don’t see titles like The Dangerous Lives of Altar Boys in American movies,” concedes director Peter Care. ”It’s too long.”
Three words too long, to be exact. The Hollywood Handbook clearly states that any coming-of-age film, be it comedy, drama, or Freddie Prinze Jr. vehicle, must contain ”a maximum of three words, e.g., American Pie, Here on Earth, She’s All That….” Of course, title sprawl is the least of Altar Boys’ transgressions — it also dares to dabble in faithlessness, sexual awakening (without the snickers), incest, and death.
Now is as good a time as any for a little rule breaking. It hasn’t been a banner year for the pastry-penetration school of cinema — or any lightweight treatment of teen angst, for that matter. (The combined grosses of such major-studio releases as Orange County, A Walk to Remember, Slackers, and Sorority Boys total less than $100 million.) Filling that gaping pie hole is a new crop of dark, low-budget dramas and comedies that take rather mature approaches to the complications and hazards of adolescence.
Consider the Sundance award winner Tadpole (opening in July), about a precocious 15-year-old Manhattan prep schooler (Aaron Stanford) who pines for his stepmother (Sigourney Weaver) and ends up sleeping with her best friend (Bebe Neuwirth). Similarly, in Blue Car (November), another Sundance fave, a high school senior (Agnes Bruckner) gets intimate with her English teacher (David Strathairn). Dawson’s Creek’s Michelle Williams stars in Me Without You (in limited release), a kind of antidote to Britney Spears’ Crossroads that offers a grittier take on female bonding (this one set in London and spanning three decades). James Toback’s Harvard Man (in limited release) centers on an Ivy Leaguer (Adrian Grenier) whose extracurriculars include LSD, illegal gambling, and blackmail. In the black comedy Igby Goes Down (September), a New York kid (Altar Boys’ Kieran Culkin) trades old-money lunacy (embodied by Susan Sarandon as his icy mom) for dangerous downtown picaresque. And then there’s Y Tu Mama Tambien, a youthful sex comedy-drama with a shockingly high emotional IQ; having earned more than $12 million, it’s one of the indie success stories of the year.
Not a bad climate for a film like The Dangerous Lives of Altar Boys, an adaptation of Chris Fuhrman’s posthumously published 1994 novel — but read that title again. ”People are going to be wondering if it’s about pederasty,” sighs producer Jodie Foster, who also plays the altar boys’ nemesis, an overbearing, well-intentioned nun named Sister Assumpta. ”I hope they’re not disappointed if they came to see a movie about pederasty and it’s about something else.”
According to first-time feature director Care, that ”something else” is simply growing up, in all of its unvarnished messiness. ”This is childhood, from the perspective of a 14-year-old, not a 35-year-old looking back through a blurry-focus lens,” says Care, 49. And, despite the ’70s setting, don’t expect the nostalgia of Stand by Me or the creepy voyeurism that’s been known to color movies about the young made by the no-longer-young. ”Francis [the main character, played by Emile Hirsch] is going through something profound,” explains Foster, 39, who says her own rocky journey to maturity and her love of French coming-of-age films (Francois Truffaut’s The 400 Blows in particular) drew her to the material. ”Yes, it’s sexual, but in many ways it’s about a boy finding his spiritual path…. I’m not saying it’s more true [than other teen films]. Masturbation comedy is true too. This just addresses a deeper side of young people.”