Guide to Recognizing Your Saints, A

Reviewed By Jay Seaver
Posted 09/13/06 23:17:25

"Ah, nostalgia for growing up in a crappy neighborhood. I don't get it."
3 stars (Just Average)

SCREENED AT THE 2006 BOSTON FILM FESTIVAL: The program for the Boston Film Festival describes the origin and meaning of the film's title, as does most of the publicity I've seen for it. This is probably helpful, since I didn't catch anything about it in the actual film. Instead, it was a decent-enough collection of things that happen to and around Dito Montiel, but remarkably little that makes the story his own.

The film opens with Dito's mother Flori (Dianne Weist) calling him in the present day, asking him to come home because his father Monty (Chazz Palminteri) is sick. He's initially reluctant, but it causes him to think back twenty years, when he (played by Shia LaBeouf rather than Robert Downey Jr.) was finishing a hot summer of hanging around his friends Antonio (Channing Tatum), Nerf (Peter Anthony Tambakis), and Giuseppe (Adam Scarimbolo). He was sort of dating Laurie (Melonie Diaz) and making friends with Mick (Martin Compston). He's the new kind in class, a Scot with horizons beyond the city. Expanding his horizons may be a good thing for Dito to explore, since he and his friends appear to be the targets of an angry graffito.

Whenever someone adapts a book or a life to film, a certain amount of pruning is necessary to fit the story into a reasonable length and focus the narrative, but I think the real-life Dito Montiel (who wrote and directed the film based upon his own memoir) may have made some bad choices on that count. He doesn't exactly cut himself out of his own story, but he does seem to go out of his way to render himself a rather generic figure. The film's title, I'm told, comes from Montiel describing his ability to stay out of trouble to being watched over by the saints; this idea never shows up in the movie. Mick and Dito talk about earning money to start a band and go to California, but he never shows us whether the two have any musical ability, or whether playing is something that they only talk about vaguely without actually doing. Those are things that could make young Dito interesting, but Montiel is apparently more interested in making a movie about the environment where he grew up than one about him growing up.

And, on that count, he doesn't do a bad job. He and cinematographer Eric Gautier shoot Astoria beautifully; the sweat of hundred-degree days drips off the screen. The neighborhood apparently hasn't changed much in the past twenty years, as any given street winds up looking almost the same when the adult Dito returns in 2005. That timelessness helps the audience see how the neighborhood can be the kids' (and adults') whole world; the outside doesn't help people earn any more money or fix the place up. That sort of dense environment makes for close relationships, the type that commit people beyond reason.

The trouble is, these folks are the same folks we've seen in every other "my youth in a poor city" movie. Antonio is the tough guy, Nerf's the follower, Giuseppe's the screw-up, Dito's the one who might be smart enough to make something of himself, Mick's the outsider who changes the dynamic, Laurie's the first girl to get under Dito's skin by being beautiful, nice, and crazy. Monty's the only father figure many of them have. Their stories aren't particularly unique, which may be the point - everybody knows an Antonio, a Nerf, a Laurie - but it means even though the audience has easy access to the story because the elements are familiar, that access doesn't get them anything particularly interesting. The dialog is the sort that blandly reduces f-bombs to wallpaper, and while Montiel occasionally makes some unique stylistic choices (bits where the characters briefly address the audience, screenplay excerpts on-screen), they're isolated things that stick out as the director trying to impress the audience, rather than making a familiar story new and exciting. The second half frequently cuts between 1986 and 2005, and I don't know that the present-day material really adds anything. It suddenly shifts the focus to the relationship between Dito and his father, but it's also taking up all the time that could have been used to develop them individually.

Mantiel did find himself a very nice cast. Weist and Palminteri are excellent as Dito's parents; it's impressive how they manage to age the characters more with voice and body language than make-up. Shia LaBeouf is pretty good as the younger Dito, but only has a couple scenes where he stands a chance of pulling attention away from Channing Tatum; that may be by design, so we see why Dito tends to hang with Antonio even when he's obvious trouble, or why Monty at times seems to think more about Antonio than his own son. Martin Compston stands out in part for his accent, but he also makes Mick a likable young man. I'm not sure whether Melonie Diaz was cast because she looks like Rosario Dawson (who plays the older Laurie) or not, but she's impressive nonetheless as the kind of teenager who has blossomed ahead of the crowd but can careen between mature and childish without a moment's notice. Robert Downey Jr. (aside from not really resembling LaBeouf that much) is severe overkill as the adult Dito; his performance is true enough to make me want to see more of him even though I was thinking I'd like to see more of it despite thinking his subplot should be cut almost entirely.

To be fair, this genre is one that I seldom connect with; I can appreciate the entries that are "City of God"-brilliant but I can't tell the difference between "merely good" and "pretty good". This one's OK. I'd tend to label it "just OK", but there's enough talent to kick it up a notch in a lot of eyes.

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