Thoughtful 'Altar Boys' displays nimble acting

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"The Dangerous Lives of Altar Boys" seemed like an amusing title before scandals in the Roman Catholic Church started to make headlines. That aside, the movie version of Chris Fuhrman's novel takes a clear-eyed look at challenges faced by parochial-school students coming of age in the 1970s.

The story rests on the accurate idea that many adolescents don't draw firm lines between reality and fantasy. The real world steadily places more responsibilities on them. Yet daydreams haven't lost their childhood allure – which explains the appeal of comic books like "The Atomic Trinity," an action-adventure strip created by the film's main characters.

They picture themselves as the superheroes, and their villains are people they don't admire, like the nun who hands out discipline at school. Trouble brews when they carry their discontents beyond the pages of their comic book, stealing school property and hatching a scheme to kidnap an animal from a zoo. The film's most serious subplots probe even darker territory, including incest in a dysfunctional family.

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The theme of "Dangerous Lives" is highlighted by references to William Blake's great poetry cycles, "Songs of Innocence" and "Songs of Experience," which evoke the moral and spiritual questions that force their way into the characters' lives. The movie has no profound insights to offer, but its nimble acting and lifelike dialogue make it entertaining as well as thoughtful. Think "Stand by Me" meets "Ghost World," and you just about have it.

• Rated R; contains vulgarity, violence, and adult themes.

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