It was more than a little unsettling to be watching a picture with this title in a Dallas theatre on the very morning that the national assembly of Catholic bishops was meeting down the street to address the issue of pedophilia among the clergy; but though there’s a good deal of adolescent sex-talk in the movie, which is set in a church-run high school in the 1970s, and even a subplot involving incest, all that stuff remains distinctly secular–the sole priest in sight could be accused only of cluelessness, not of the crime currently in the news. “The Dangerous Lives of Altar Boys” may attract viewers, as unjustly notorious books have often done (just think of Nabokov’s “Lolita”), for all the wrong reasons; but if they’re reasonably intelligent people, they should find the first feature by Peter Care (known for his documentaries and music videos) a promising, unconventional, often affecting though uneven effort.

Essentially the film, based on a novel by the late Chris Fuhrman (to whom it’s dedicated), is a coming-of-age story centering on two students, smart but nihilistic Tim Sullivan (Kieran Culkin) and his best friend, sensitive, dour Francis Doyle (Emile Hirsch). Together with their two more reticent buddies Wade (Jake Richardson) and Joey (Tyler Long), they imagine themselves as super-heroes in a comic strip drawn by Francis, a talented artist, in which the villain is a variant of their hated teacher, the rigid Sister Assumpta (Jodie Foster); but the pair also engage in potentially self-destructive conduct on their own. Matters grow complicated as the shy Francis gets close to his dream girl Margie Flynn (Jena Malone). One might predict that their relationship would cause a rift between Francis and Tim, but that conventional expectation is happily thwarted by something more complex and intriguing; Margie proves a complicated addition to the adolescent equation, but in ways that are surprising and strangely unsettling. And the inevitably tragic outcome results not so much from it as from Tim’s reckless determination to attack the status quo he detests in a particularly brutal way. One aspect of the film that sets it apart from others of its kind is that the live-action narrative is occasionally interrupted by animated fantasy sequences by Todd McFarlane (the erstwhile Marvel employee who went on to create “Spawn”) that depict the four friends in their comic-strip guises doing battle against the villainous Assumpta-surrogate; eventually Margie makes her way into these fantasy interludes as well, in the form of a princess in need of assistance. The animated episodes, inserted periodically into the piece, are designed not merely to comment upon the narrative but to explore the adolescent perspective from which the characters–particularly Francis–perceive, and try to deal with, what’s happening to them.

Unfortunately, for all its intriguing qualities, “Altar Boys” calls to mind numerous other pictures in ways that usually don’t redound to its favor. The repressive Catholic school atmosphere, for example, is not unlike that of Keith Gordon’s 1988 adaptation of Robert Cormier’s “The Chocolate War,” which in many ways built the mood more successfully (as did Sidney Lumet’s underrated “Child’s Play” of 1972). The escape of the youths into a fantastic world of their own making which brings tragedy in its wake is somewhat reminiscent of Peter Jackson’s remarkable “Heavenly Creatures” (1994), a distinctly superior work. One might also detect some resemblance to last year’s superb portrait of teen angst, “Donnie Darko” (in which Malone once again played the “romantic” interest)–a significantly better film overall. (There’s even a touch of John Knowles’ “A Separate Peace” at work, though the film made of it back in 1972 was none too good, and also of Rob Reiner’s “Stand By Me.”) But Care’s take on the subject is sufficiently distinctive and evocative that, while it falls short of the standard achieved by “Creatures” and “Donnie,” for instance, it’s still worth seeing. That’s the case despite some failings among the cast. The young performers are uniformly excellent. Culkin is first-billed, but though he’s fine–smoothly suggesting Tim’s craftiness and manipulation–he plays a distinct second fiddle to Hirsch, who’s really the central figure and is remarkably good: this is his first film, but if his performance here is any indication, he could have a solid career ahead of him. Malone once again exhibits a fine mixture of attractiveness and vulnerability, and Richardson and Long both make persuasive followers. Unhappily, the adults are less convincing. You have to admire Foster–one of the producers, it should be noted–for attempting the role of the rigid Assumpta, who has a prosthetic leg, but she struggles to find the proper pitch for the part–the woman is supposed at once to be genuinely concerned for the boys and harsh with them–and never quite captures it. That chameleon of an actor Vincent D’Onofrio eschews his normal exuberance as her colleague Father Casey; it’s impressive that he hardly seems the same person as the one who starred in “The Salton Sea,” but he’s not terribly interesting, either. The film would have benefitted from appearances by a few other adults–we glimpse Doyle’s parents, but Sullivan’s and Flynn’s make virtually no appearance, and some modest indication of the home life behind all the characters’ difficulties would have helped to flesh things out.

“The Dangerous Lives of Altar Boys” isn’t remarkable from the technical perspective. It has the look of a modestly-budgeted independent production (the school seems understaffed, and the student body awfully small), and visually even the animated segments are at best workmanlike (the cinematography by Lance Acord, whose work on “Being John Malkovich” was extraordinary, looks rather wan). The writing, direction and performances, however, raise the film beyond the limitations and make it a commendable, if flawed, attempt to breathe new life into the coming-of-age genre.