A Guide to Recognizing Your Saints
2006, R, 98 min. Directed by Dito Montiel. Starring Robert Downey Jr., Shia LaBeouf, Chazz Palminteri, Dianne Wiest, Rosario Dawson, Channing Tatum, Eric Roberts.
REVIEWED By Marjorie Baumgarten, Fri., Oct. 27, 2006
Montiel's debut feature about growing up in Astoria, Queens, in the mid-Eighties is based on his book of the same title. It's an impressionistic memory piece about coming of age on the working-class streets dominated by the immigrant descendants of Italians, Puerto Ricans, and African-Americans. Some viewers have compared Montiel's striking debut with the early work of Martin Scorsese and Spike Lee, especially after the film won two awards at Sundance (where it was also workshopped) – one for direction and the other for the ensemble cast. Montiel's visual and narrative sense is undisciplined yet extremely cinematic. He throws in every cinematic ploy he can think of, like a kid with a new toy, and it helps that he has the nimble DP Eric Gautier (Motorcycle Diaries, Clean) at the helm. Still, one occasionally gets the feeling that Montiel's vision of New York's mean streets is as much derived from the movies that influenced him as his own experiences. The film fluctuates between intensely passionate moments of captured vérité and scattershot assemblages of throwaway ideas. All wind up sharing equal importance, so the viewer is in a constant ricochet between engrossing imagery and ephemeral dross. LaBeouf stars as the teenaged Dito, who realizes he must escape the violent neighborhood and his loving but impractical father (Palminteri) before he is wheeled out on a stretcher. The saints are his various dead-end friends. A parallel story set in the present day also coexists, with Downey Jr. (who is also a producer and primary instigator of the project) playing Dito 15 years older. It begins as Dito's mother (Wiest) asks him to return home for the first time in 15 years to help put his ill father into the hospital. It's eerily fascinating to watch LaBeouf and Downey both converging toward one character, much as the film also strives to converge toward narrative unity. In a cameo as Dito's abandoned girlfirend 15 years later, Dawson nearly steals the entire show. A Guide to Recognizing Your Saints is inchoate, but it demonstrates that instincts and brio can compensate for a lot.