A Guide To Recognizing Your Saints
Review by Jack Foley
DVD SPECIAL FEATURES: Interviews with Robert Downey Jr., Channing Tatum, Shia LaBeouf, Trudie Stylerand Dito Montiel (writer, director) and behind the scenes footage…
FILMS based around the real-life experiences of writers or directors can sometimes be a little too personal for their own good, alienating audiences in the process of translating them to the screen.
A Guide To Recognizing Your Saints, the debut feature from writer-director Dito Montiel, suffers a little from such criticisms but is ultimately saved by the efforts of its first-rate ensemble cast.
Set in the tough neighbourhood of Astoria – a suburb of Queens, New York – the film follows the fortunes of Dito at two points in his life – first, as a successful writer (played by Robert Downey Jr) in the present day who is summoned home to care for his sick father after a 15-year absence, and secondly as a teenager (played by Shia LaBeouf) in the ’80s trying to stay out of trouble.
The film spends most of its time in the past watching as Dito shapes the various friendships that will come to define his adult years and introducing us to the various people, or “saints”, that helped him to avoid prison, drugs and death.
Primary among them are Laurie (Melonie Diaz), his childhood sweetheart; Mike (Martin Compston), a Scot who dreams of becoming a musician, and Antonio (Channing Tatum), his cocky but volatile best friend who’s grappling with an abusive father.
Back in the present day, meanwhile, Dito (now played by Downey Jr) revisits old haunts and flames, pausing to reminisce with Laurie (now played by Rosario Dawson) before returning home to confront his mother (Dianne Wiest) and ailing, heartbroken father (Chazz Palminteri).
From its look and setting alone, Montiel’s film evokes memories of films such as Mean Streets and Summer of Sam, not to mention De Niro’s A Bronx Tale.
But while many of the characters and situations are contrived – from the gang violence which threatens around every corner to the sticky adolescent fumblings of its teenage tearaways – the film is elevated considerably by the efforts of its talented cast.
LaBeouf and Tatum, in particular, bring a great deal of charisma and depth to their characters, effortlessly conveying the fears and anxieties of life on the sweaty streets of Astoria – and they’re well-served by Montiel’s gritty camera-work that adds to the authentic feel of proceedings.
But the film really succeeds emotionally during the later scenes between Downey Jr and the people he revisits. A moment between Dito and his mother on some steps is very touching, as is his reunion with Laurie, and there’s a real honesty in the confrontation he has with his father (Palminteri).
It’s during such moments that the film makes up for a slow start, during which certain characters and situations feel a little too contrived.
Montiel, too, emerges as an intriguing film-maker in his own right even though the suspicion remains that elements of the film could have benefited from a little distance between the writer and his subject.
If you’re a fan of performance-driven cinema then this certainly fits the bill.
Running time: 98mins