A Guide to Recognizing Your Saints
Actors drive gritty but familiar coming-of-age tale
A Guide to Recognizing Your Saints
Directed by Dito Montiel
Cast: Robert Downey Jr., Shia LaBeouf, Chazz Palminteri, Dianne Wiest
New York kid Dito Montiel may have been born on Nowhere Street, but he spent a good chunk of the ’80s hanging out with some of NYC’s heaviest hitters. After his band Gutterboy (billed as the most successful unsuccessful band in history) was signed by Geffin Records for an unprecedented $1 million, Montiel became the toast of the town. His list of fans/friends includes/included Andy Warhol, Bruce Weber, Liza Minnelli and Allen Ginsberg.
In 2003, Montiel wrote an impressionistic memoir about his early exploits in Manhattan as well as his later journeys on the road. Those who read it found echoes of Kerouac in Montiel’s stream of consciousness prose. Now, Montiel has transformed the story into an indie film project, developed under the auspices of the Sundance Institute and financed by a few of those celebrity pals. (Is that Sting listed as one of the producers?)
Oddly enough, although the protagonist of A Guide to Recognizing Your Saints is named Dito Montiel, he bears only a passing resemblance to the original. The film’s narrative (which the real Montiel admits takes “huge liberties”) begins with Montiel (played by Robert Downey Jr.) reading from his book and informing us that a couple of boys are going to be killed during the course of this narrative. He doesn’t want to give away the story or anything, but it’s not too pleasant and you might not want to watch. After that, we meet the teenaged version of Montiel (played by Shia LaBeouf), who informs us that, in the next hour and a half, he’s going to abandon all of his friends and family. That’s not much of a spoiler either since, as young Montiel’s coming-of-age story unfolds, we also see grown-up Montiel, who has been called back to his hometown of Astoria, Queens, after a 15-year absence to make peace with his dying father.
In the ’80s flashback sections of the film, young Dito seems like a typical New York kid. He hangs out with his pals, fights with his parents and tries to get laid. He also dreams of escaping the confines of his birthplace, perhaps heading out to California to start a band. In Queens, however, such talk is sacrilege. Dito’s father (Chazz Palminteri) is an old-school tough guy who believes in family and neighborhood. In fact, he seems to have a lot more in common with Dito’s best friend and surrogate big brother, the volatile thug Antonio (Step Up’s Channing Tatum) than with his sensitive and dreamy son. Throw in a directionless bunch of pals and some increasingly bad gang violence, and this troubled teen has got his work cut out for him.
While young Dito wrestles with the burden of outgrowing his family, friends and neighborhood, adult Dito tries to make peace with his stubborn father, his loving mother (Dianne Wiest) and a collection of now-grown pals (including Rosario Dawson, Scott Campbell and Eric Roberts).
For a first-time filmmaker, Montiel has done an impressive job. His script does bear the unmistakable scent of a Sundance Institute project (Robert Redford and company never met a coming-of-age tale they didn’t like). But his finished film has a remarkable authenticity to it. Beyond even its obvious influences (Mean Street, Saturday Night Fever, Do the Right Thing), A Guide to Recognizing Your Saints walks the walk and talks the talk. The cast is clearly a talented lot, and they disappear into their characters, never delivering dialogue or speeches, but simply talking to one another like real people. There are shining moments when Montiel’s film feels like some long-lost Cassavetes (Faces, Husbands, The Killing of a Chinese Bookie), which is no short order. Cinema verité isn’t something American filmmakers have practiced in a while, and it’s refreshing to see.
That isn’t to say that Montiel’s debut is flawless. Admirable as it may be, the story does feel like a retread of other films (the aforementioned Mean Streets, Do the Right Thing and Saturday Night Fever, not to mention A Boy’s Life, Basketball Diaries, Sleepers, The Outsiders ... I could go on). The film is heavily weighted toward the flashback segments. That’s no crime, of course. Shia LaBeouf (The Battle of Shaker Heights) continues to impress as the best actor no one’s ever seen (except for those tweens who watched him on the Disney Channel sitcom “Even Stevens”). But most of the film’s dramatic resolution comes, necessarily, in the later, Downey-led segments, which are so brief they almost qualify as a framing segment. Other than a few period songs, the film’s tiny budget doesn’t allow for much historical recreation.
Undeniable as an actor’s showcase, A Guide to Recognizing Your Saints can’t quite escape its roots as a sort of “greatest hits” package of “I had a troubled childhood growing up on the mean streets of New York, but came of age and became a famous artist” stories. If only Montiel had been a little more inspired by his own life, and a little less inspired by the movies he watched.