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True to a Difficult Age

Jodie Foster and her young 'Altar Boys' co-stars bonded over the desire to show teens honestly, sadness and all.

June 16, 2002|SORINA DIACONESCU | Sorina Diaconescu is a Times staff writer.

Most things adults know better. Except certain things, which teenagers know best. Like that first time you fall in love and walk around with a tingly, achy sensation coiled in the pit of your stomach. Or the first time you break up, and the certainty that you'll never be able to get over it seems wired in every cell of your body.

That kind of stuff has been on Jodie Foster's mind lately. "I've been thinking a lot about when I was 15, 16, feeling like I was completely alone in the world and there was nobody to understand what I was going through," she says, at 39 very much a grown-up mom but irresistibly drawn to matters of the adolescent heart. "I don't think I've ever been as dark or as sad. But to me it was also beautiful: I never felt as much. So I really wanted to make a movie that is true to those things."

To this end, Foster rolled up her sleeves and went to work as an indie film producer; the sweet, tart fruit of her labor arrived in New York and Los Angeles theaters Friday. "The Dangerous Lives of Altar Boys" is a movie about teenagers that strives to convey both their exuberance and immaculate seriousness; its eye-candy layers peel off one by one to reveal the big emotions of youth. Embodying the passage from innocence to experience are three young actors--Emile Hirsch, Kieran Culkin and Jena Malone--who were about the same age as their characters, 15, when "Altar Boys" wrapped. After the nearly two-year post-production process (the film includes animated sequences), the three are older and wiser to the ways of filmmaking.

Teen movie conventions routinely allow 15-year-old characters to be played by those in their 20s who need to shave twice a day. "Their voices are way low, so they squeak them up by tightening their jockstraps," Hirsch jokes. "I know people in high school who look like, honestly, they're still in sixth grade. But in the movies, how these people look is like adults!"

Teen actors are rarely asked to play parts that make use of what comes naturally to them, says "Altar Boys" director Peter Care. No amount of adult competence can convey to the same effect the clumsiness of body language, the transparency of emotion, the mixture of bravado and fragility typical of that age, Care suggests.

"When boys are getting 13, 14, 15, they don't know what the heck is going on with their bodies, and they have that mixture of real innocence and yearning for the truth about life written all over their faces," he says.

Foster, who knows something about growing up on screen, shared those insights with Hirsch and Malone recently when she joined them in a conversation about cinematic and real-life adolescence in the Mid-Wilshire office of the film's publicity firm. Looks allowed Foster to be cast as a teen in "Stealing Home" at 25, when she remembers vowing to herself that it would be for the last time.

"Did you feel like you were stealing all these roles from the younger kids?" Hirsch asks. He has been acting since age 10, but the role of Francis, the protagonist among the titular altar boys and a daydreamer whose feverish imagination turns everybody around him into comic-book characters, is his meatiest part yet.

Foster fought to cast teenage leads and used her star power to secure wider audiences by giving herself a supporting part. With "Altar Boys," her ambitions extend to repairing other omissions of the teen movie genre, especially the absence of dark themes with big appeal to the hearts and minds of teenagers but seldom reflected on the screen.

"I think adults love to believe that sadness is not a part of children's lives," she says. At that age, "the questions are huge and complicated, and a lot of them are incredibly sad: 'What will I be like?' 'Will I be successful, or will everybody spit on me?' "

*

It began as a 1994 J.D. Salinger-esque novel by author Chris Fuhrman, and the story has sprung to the big screen with its sensibility intact. In performances that bring to mind the gauche charm of teenage poetry scribbled in notebook margins, Hirsch and Culkin play Francis and Tim, respectively, ringleaders of a gang of teenage daredevils on the loose in an early-'70s Southern town.

They fancy themselves comic book heroes and scheme to sow fright in the souls of their Catholic high-school teachers. They seek forbidden wisdom in books and alcohol. And sometimes they stare at bedroom ceilings studded with Day-Glo stars and try hard to imagine what William Blake meant when he praised the nakedness of woman as the work of God.

Malone plays a strange girl named Margie, who is the subject of Francis' love-struck doodlings and ultimately his guide into the bittersweet business of adulthood. Foster dons a nun's habit and a prosthetic leg as Sister Assumpta, the uptight teacher who haunts the teenagers' dreams as a motorcycle-riding hellcat.

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