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movies: Unholy Avengers

Despite its unfortunate title, Jodie Foster and company fill this '70s coming-of-age tale with humor, heart and soul.

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Based on the 1994 cult novel by the late Chris Fuhrman, this big-screen adaptation is a subtle comic gem. Almost picaresque in nature, it follows the exploits of two altar boys who are also boon companions. Although the dangers faced by these two parochial-school rascals are largely self-created, their good-natured mischief takes a tragic turn once adolescence looms large on the horizon.

If the movie fails anywhere, it is in its attempt to do too much in 105 minutes. It is, among other elements, made up of a coming-of-age drama; an animated comic-book adventure; a sweet but dark '70s-style teen romance; a Catholic-school caper; and even a ghost story. As a result, "The Dangerous Lives of Altar Boys" can be confounding. As one might imagine, sifting together such a multitude of disparate thematic elements means more than a few awkward fits.

However, it's difficult to condemn first-time director Peter Care for being too ambitious, especially when he shows a deft touch with the young actors. Emile Hirsch (Francis) and Kieran Culkin (Tim) have a believable awkwardness as our two secular scalawags, and the scenes with the two boys just sitting around talking have the ring of truth.

Set in an unnamed Southern town in the 1970s, "The Dangerous Lives of Altar Boys" seems washed in the golden glow of a hazy memory. With its unhurried pacing, the movie will remind more than a few moviegoers of another dynamite but disturbing coming-of-age saga, "The Virgin Suicides." Except this drama is all about boys being boys, until puberty pushes them into manhood.

Driven by the need to test their standing and place within the universe, Francis and Tim see themselves as unholy avengers. Their nemesis is their humorless, peg-legged teacher, Sister Assumpta (Jodie Foster). Compelled to get her goat whenever and however they can, Francis and Tim engage in an escalating game of boyish pranks. But what begins with the harmless theft of a religious statue soon takes a dangerous and ultimately tragic turn when the boys' fertile imagination attempts an elaborate escapade with a live cougar.

Interspersed throughout the movie are amazing animated sequences depicting Francis and Tim (along with two other lesser Catholic cohorts) as "X-Men"-style comic-book heroes. Aptly titled "The Atomic Trinity," this comic book the boys spend their free time drawing is violent, blasphemous and completely engrossing. Hand-drawn by "Spawn" creator Todd McFarlane, these animated scenes place Tim and Francis in a parallel universe where their alter egos battle the evil Nunzilla. Beginning with rudimentary pencil drawings on three-ring notepaper, McFarlane and Care allow the pictures to morph into full-blown action-adventures. As illustrations of the boys' fantasy lives, these scenes are the most compelling in the movie.

Running a close second, however, would be the scene in which the boys' attention is diverted from the plaid-skirted forms of their female classmates to the wimple-wearing shape of Sister Assumpta. Riding astride a motorscooter, with black habit and veil flowing behind, Foster's clenched-jaw nun seems like the religious twin sister to "The Wizard of Oz's" Miss Gulch. The actress' somewhat steely nature is a perfect fit with the tightly controlled Assumpta. Speaking in a faint but lilting Irish brogue, Foster accomplishes the near impossible, making Assumpta both villainess and victim.

Without Foster's performance and McFarlane's visually imaginative animation, "The Dangerous Lives of Altar Boys" would be nothing more than a predictable bit of adolescent angst. But with them, this rites-of-passage saga becomes heavenly entertainment. S ***

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