2002 Seattle International Film Festival – Installment 3

Seattle Film Fest Installment 3: Who’s Your Buddy?

No one guards her private life in Hollywood more closely than Jodie Foster does.

By Rebecca Redshaw

Reprinted from NotesFromHollywood.com


Installment 3: “Who’s Your Buddy?”


No one guards her private life in Hollywood more closely than Jodie Foster does. In “The Dangerous Lives of Altar Boys,” a film produced by her company, Jodie comes out of the closet not as a clandestine member of the NRA or a contestant on the disgusting television reality show, Fear Factor, or even a stunningly attractive lesbian, the epitome of all that is good both masculine and feminine.

No, Ms. Foster comes out, or rather, into the lives of troubled young Catholics as, of all things, a nun. Sister Assumpta doesn’t look like any nun I’ve ever seen in spite of the severe black habit and sensible shoes. And she doesn’t exactly roar on her putt-putt scooter but in the altar boys’ fantasies, this Sister rides a powerful hog and makes their lives miserable at every turn.

The title, “The Dangerous Lives of Altar Boys,” a film by Peter Care, in these times draws images in one’s mind far more disturbing than the angst of misunderstood young teens in the 70’s. Given the current headlines, it might be wise to adopt a new title. As wonderful an actress as Foster is (she is supported ably by Vincent D’Onofrio as the priest you might want your children to spend time with), it was hard separating the triteness of her classroom pranksters with today’s troubled adult victims.

The audience for “Altar Boys” is challenged on two fronts, the first, artistic choices and the second, plot turns.

At first, the film seems like a coming of age story with a few twists and turns. Decked out in dark slacks, white shirts and ties, these thirteenish lads share beers in a secret hangout and draw cartoons in school binders to foil their nemesis, Sister Jodie.

The comic super heroes created by their alter egos are transformed in animation segments throughout the movie. Although initially disconcerting, this technique is well integrated and adds to the progress of the story line. In their fantasies, the cartoon nun is as deadly as the boys are powerful and they have a grand time meeting her head on with cartoon weaponry.

If “Altar Boys” was just a cartoon adventure coming to life it might have worked better. But there are huge emotional leaps required in this film.

The magic of a first kiss and the harmless prank of absconding with a statue of the Virgin Mary and holding it for ransom are countered with incest, alcoholic home life, and ultimately, a gruesome death. The emotional leaps required of the moviegoer are too great.

Emile Hirsch as Francis Doyle and Kieran Culkin as the troubled Tim Sullivan are essentially the stars of this coming of age film, even though they have other youthful partners in crime. Culkin’s screen presence is formidable and it’s clear that he could carry a film in the future, with or without a “buddy.”

Usually “buddy” films are about cool people like Butch and Sundance or Thelma and Louise. Elling, a Norwegian film, takes the genre to a different level by naming only one of the leads in the title. Nothing is amiss. This buddy movie is a gem.

Elling is the epitome of uncool. He meets Kjell, a sex-obsessed virgin and glutton, when they become roommates by happenstance as adult wards of the state. It is never clarified as to the reasons they are institutionalized and as the story unfolds, who cares?

After living two years together in the safety of the institution, Elling and Kjell are given an apartment in Oslo to transition into the real world.

Their liaison, a frustrated and overworked social worker, insists that the roommates venture forth beyond the apartment walls to buy groceries, yet the challenge of dialing the phone for Elling is almost more than he can bear.

Their first step in achieving independence is discovered by the social worker when he receives an outrageous phone bill for phone-sex calls. Not exactly what he had in mind when he advised Kjell and Elling to get involved beyond the four walls of their apartment.

The treat of watching the layers of the characters unfold is similar to unwrapping box within box of a surprise birthday present. The accomplishment of the paranoid Elling, played by Per Christian Ellefsen, to be able to pee in a restaurant men’s room with a finger snap brings our hero closer to being an accepted member of society.

On an overnight camping trip, Sven Nordin (Norway’s answer to Gerard Depardieu), as the oafish but lovable Kjell, begs Elling for his underpants. Alas, the possibility of losing his virginity presents itself and he realizes he hasn’t changed his shorts in days.

As these misfits stumble finding their way in strange territory, we laugh with them, not at them, realizing their foibles are not that far from what we consider the norm.

Usually, movies adapted from theatrical productions are awkward or stagnant or both. Thanks to director Petter Naess, Elling transitions beautifully.