The Dangerous Lives of Altar Boys

Coming-of-age film only for those already of age.
  • Review Date: February 28, 2006
  • Rated: R
  • Genre: Drama
  • Release Year: 2002
  • Running Time: 105 minutes

What parents need to know

Positive messages

These characters are not to be taken as role models by anyone, but they're not necessarily bad people.


Lots of animated violence, two fist fights, and one character is mauled to death by a mountain lion.


Very frank sexual discussion, innuendo, and some obscene drawings. Characters engage in little more than making out and touching above the waist. One character deals with sexual abuse by an older brother.


Lots of swearing, sexual innuendo, etc.

Not applicable
Drinking, drugs, & smoking

Young boys (14) drink without consequences, smoke, and do drugs.

Parents Need to Know

Parents need to know that this film is not for kids. The protagonists are surrounded by difficult situations (one has alcoholic parents and is humiliated in school, another is a victim of an older brother's sexual abuse, a girl is suicidal and scars on her wrists are shown), and lack of parental involvement leads to substance abuse of all types, as well as copious amounts of swearing. Young teens pull dangerous pranks (such as cutting down telephone poles with chainsaws), break into wildlife parks and abandoned houses, and blatantly flout authority figures. These characters are rarely punished, and expulsion is treated lightly. Although characters draw obscene pictures and speak graphically about sex, their real-world experience is very limited, and little more than making out and touching above the waist is depicted onscreen. Animated sequences include a lot of comic book violence, and there is a deadly mauling by a mountain lion. There are also several conversations about masturbation.

What's the story?

Set in a small town in the 1970s, THE DANGEROUS LIVES OF ALTAR BOYS centers on Catholic school best friends Tim (Kieran Culkin) and Francis (Emile Hirsch), who go to great lengths both to make life interesting by creating their own comic book series (depicted in the film's animated segments), playing pranks, and talking about sex. The boys must avoid getting in trouble with strict teacher Sister Assumpta (Jodie Foster). Francis' crush on troubled Margie (Jena Malone) leads the story into more serious territory.

Is it any good?


This coming-of-age film is much too dark for those actually coming of age, but for mature older teens and adults, it's well worth watching. The film nicely contrasts the dirty minds and knowledge the boys possess with their social awkwardness and hesitancy around girls. The comic-book-like animation sequences are initially distracting, but ultimately enhance the story. Although the nostalgic coming-of-age genre is generally a great one to watch with your family, hold off on this one until your kids are old enough to handle all of the mature themes -- these kids engage in substance abuse and other activities that you don't want them emulating.

Standout performances by the young actors render the characters lovely and believable, although the plot stretches the realm of possibility. Kieran Culkin and Emile Hirsch put in wonderful performances as Tim and Francis, and Jena Malone shines as Margie. Jodie Foster's character suffers from the necessary distance given to all adult characters, but she manages to impart enough humanity to allow the audience to relate to her.

Families can talk about...

  • Families can talk about the effect that Margie's secret has on those who know it. How does Sister Assumpta affect the boys? How does she change throughout the movie? How are adults portrayed in the film? How do the characters treat consequences? How does Tim's background affect the way that he sees the world? What is the importance of William Blake's poetry in the film? What does it mean to be a "dangerous thinker"? What is the point of Tim's 'trick' in the end? What does the film say about friendship? Forgiveness?

Movie details

Theatrical release date:January 18, 2002
DVD release date:April 1, 2003
Cast:Emile Hirsch, Jodie Foster, Kieran Culkin
Director:Peter Care
Studio:Columbia Tristar
Run time:105 minutes
MPAA rating:R
MPAA explanation:language, sexual content and youth substance use

This review of The Dangerous Lives of Altar Boys was written by

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  • Very Good: Engaging; good learning approach.
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  • Not for Kids: Not age-appropriate for kids; not recommended for learning.

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Teen, 13 years old Written byHayffie24 June 20, 2015
age 14+


This movie is about 4 boys who want to cause trouble in their school. There is talk of masturbation, sex and a scene where you see a young boy being killed. The film is quite realistic (some of the kids have problems at home etc.) and you see that there are always consequences to your actions.
Teen, 16 years old Written byoingo boingo May 7, 2013
age 13+

overall it was very entertaining to see kids being kids

After all it is a story about kids isn't it? I don't see why a twelve year old can't handle it.
What other families should know
Great messages
Too much violence
Too much sex
Too much swearing
Adult Written bycrazyboutmovies February 1, 2012
age 18+


With independent films, the experience is often either very good or very bad. I was bitterly dissapointed with this movie, and had to have me finger on the fast forward button throughout. I do not know what offended me more, the obnoxiousness of the boys, the one-dimensional portrayal of religious men and women, or the negative view of Catholic education. The title itself is misleading. The story had nothing to do with the fact that these boys were alter servers at Mass. Their behaviour throughout the story was more suited to John Belushi's "Animal House". I am also a product of Catholic schools, and I find it difficult to believe that students in their early teens are capable of such destructive behaviour. As a Catholic, I am very much offended by this movie.


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