A Guide to Recognizing Your Saints Review

In 2003, Dito Montiel released a memoir called A Guide to Recognizing Your Saints which details his childhood in Queens, New York during the 80s as a raw-blooded teenage male and how his so-called "Saints" saved him from his friends' dead-end fate. When time came to adapt the story into a movie, Montiel didn't just lift scenes from his own book. He also added in an epilogue that alternates with the story, about what happened to the adult Dito after the book was released. This was a great choice, because not only did it round up Dito's life story, but it also shows us his repentant side. Otherwise the movie would have been nothing but obnoxious scenes of obnoxious teens doing obnoxious things. Unfortunately, most of the movie is still just that.

A Guide to Recognizing Your Saints is a film that, sadly, fell into the autobiographical film trap by spending too much time with superfluous scenes that go nowhere. Montiel admitted that many aspects of the film is fiction, but the movie still presents itself as a biographical tale. It took the Larry Clark approach, by realistically portraying teenagers in their natural habitat doing nothing truly worth mentioning except interacting. The story of Dito's childhood isn't that unique in retrospect. It treads familiar territories we've seen before in films like Mean Streets, Kids and Sleepers. The drama that Dito experienced may mean something to the author, but not so much to us. We find out where Dito and his peers eventually end up early on in the movie, so the rest of it is just filling in the holes.

The present day part of the film follows the adult Dito, after his success as a writer in Los Angeles, going back to New York to see his sick father, who still resents him for leaving in the first place. As he reconciles with his old neighborhood, he struggles to rebuild his relationship with his father. This part of the film is frankly more powerful and interesting than the childhood. Why spend most of the film indulging in unlikable kids doing unpleasant things? There's a dimwitted testosterone-fest going on that's admittedly pretty damn amusing to watch, but feels vain and misguided. Dito made his own decision to escape his doomed circle of friends, because he's afraid. It's less about Dito recognizing his Saints; and more about voyeur on teen sex, crime, and tragedies. The usual beat.

One thing the film did absolutely right, with no slips whatsoever, was in the casting department. Every single actor in this film is phenomenal. So good, it's probably worth it to sit through this dull account just so the performances can carry you away. After this film, I bet you won't stop hearing raves about Shia LeBeouf's turn as young Dito. It's a fantastic performance that will break him further away from kids movies and bit roles in dumb action films. Robert Downey Jr. acts against type in a very subdued and quiet performance. It's wonderful casting when you don't see a resemblance between these two actors, but you end up absolutely believing that they're the same person.

Other supporting actors, including Channing Tatum and Rosario Dawson, filled their roles very well. Tatum has been praised for this breakout role (not so much for his previous dud Step Up), and deservedly so. He made Antonio a memorable character rather than just a thug. Chazz Palminteri, a talented veteran who for years has been typecast as a gangster in more than a few turkeys, delivers what is possibly the best performance of his career as Dito's father. It's a performance that sucks you in like a charisma vacuum and breaks your heart.

One of the things many first time directors do -- especially when they're a writer first -- is to try and overshoot the visuals. They want to prove that they have a flair for manipulating images in an unconventional way, and more often than not they become unnecessary gimmicks. This film is chock-full of gimmicks. Nearly all of them were only used once. Like editing scenes non-sequentially to make the shots jumpy and out-of-order -- a sketchy technique used appropriately in Steven Soderbergh's The Limey. There, the style was consistent throughout and reflected the main character. Here, it was only used in one scene and served no purpose other than to undercut the tension of that very scene. It's out of place and gives the impression of trying to be cool. Same goes for a whole scene where it's just the screenplay being typed on a black screen, or a sequence where the characters take turns talking to the camera and describe their own personalities. They're cheap distracting shortcuts.

As I was sitting there in a room full of critics, I wondered how many of them were enjoying the film. It seems like a film tailor made for our approval. It looks, sounds, and moves exactly like a stereotypical Sundance film. It has spunk, it's honest, it's raw, but with a melancholy touch. Imagine any Sundance coming-of-age drama and you get the gist of it. Not too big a surprise that Saints won awards at Sundance. This stumped me for a while. Sitting there, I asked myself, "When did independent cinema become so formulaic and by-the-numbers?" I don't know about you, but I think it's time for them to challenge the industry with unique voices again, instead of being mere vehicles for actors to showcase their acting.

Still, if you like these New York teens gone wild stories, there are worse ways to waste a couple of hours.

"A Guide to Recognizing Your Saints" opens September 29, 2006 and is rated R. Crime, Drama. Written and directed by Dito Montiel. Starring Channing Tatum, Chazz Palminteri, Dianne Wiest, Julia Garro, Melonie Diaz, Robert Downey Jr, Rosario Dawson, Shia LaBeouf.



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