Two altar boys living in a small town sublimate their teenage energy by creating comic-strip superheroes who do battle with their “evil” Catholic teachers, Sister Assumpta (Jodie Foster) and Father Casey (Vincent d’Onofrio). One of the strokes of genius of the film is to jump right into that animated universe, which becomes increasingly unsettling as we head towards the conclusion.
Less successful are the latter two characters. Foster’s half cripple nun does not come across as dried up from years of denial and repression: there is still that smouldering sexuality or anger or something there. The bearded and cigar-smoking Father is played with casual and watchable ease by D’Onofrio. He, too, is curiously underdeveloped in that he doesn’t seem to care much about God, Assumpta or his two boys and their girlfriend. But it is around them that the film revolves, and in that respect it is perfectly cast, paced and realised.
Emile Hirsch plays Francis Doyle, the boy whose sexual awakening is not as innocent as he might have thought. That his love affair with Margie Flynn (Jena Malone) is as innocent as it is arousing, as tender as it is tainted says a lot for first-time director Peter Care.
Kieran Culkin plays the devious Tim Sullivan with almost poker-faced innocence. Starting off as just another teenager with his arm in plaster of Paris, he subtly becomes one of the most complex cinematic figures of recent years. For all the film’s adult faults, ironically, the youngsters’ performances are totally convincing, while Culkin should at least get an Oscar nomination.