I went into my screening of A Guide to Recognizing Your Saints not knowing anything about this movie, other than that the one sheet made me think it might have something to do with superheroes. Little did I know I was going to become immersed in a New York drama set in 1986 about a group of friends, and all the highs and lows that befall them. The person leading the story is Dito Montiel who also wrote the book A Guide to Recognizing Your Saints. This is an interesting film because we know we are watching a movie, yet at the same time we also are aware that the person who directed this movie is showing us a piece of his life. At about forty minutes in I realized that I was watching one of the best, American coming of age tales since American Graffiti, Mean Streets and Stand by Me.
We open with the core group in Astoria, New York as they experience another hot, lazy summer. The guys are Dito (Shia LaBeouf; who is played in his older incarnation by Robert Downey, Jr.), Antonio (Channing Tatum), Nerf (Peter Anthony Tambakis; played by Scott Michael Campbell in his older incarnation), and Giuseppe (Adam Scarimbolo). We see these guys hanging out, having fun in the neighborhood, getting into fights, and sitting at the feet of Dito's father Monty (Chazz Palminteri). In fact, it is obvious from the very beginning that Monty and Antonio have a surrogate father/son relationship.
Things change for Dito when he starts dating Laurie (Melonia Diaz; played by Rosario Dawson as her older self), and befriends a new kid in the classroom named Mike (Martin Compston). Mike is an exchange student from Scotland who lives a very free life and opens up Dito's mind beyond his neighborhood. Dito's parents and his friends love him so much that they don't want him to leave. In fact, the story of the younger kids is juxtaposed with the story of the older Dito coming back home after he left Astoria and didn't speak to anybody there for 15 years. This story is a lot of events in the group cut together, showing us the rough environment and why Dito felt that he has to leave. As his group of friends either ends up in jail, strung out, or dead, it becomes apparent that Dito really didn't have any other choice.
There is also a subplot of a rival group of kids that Dito and his group tangle with. While this takes up about a third of the movie, A Guide to Recognizing Your Saints really does it's best to capture the characters that have been created in this world. The fact that we get to see the older Dito mixed with the younger one, lets us see just how much these events have effected him. Truth be told, I think we could have done without seeing the older Dito until later in the film, but that's an aesthetic choice that is most likely best left to the films writer and director. When one realizes that Dito Montiel not only wrote this book, but wrote and directed this movie (his first), I think it is apparent this is an artist we are going to see a lot of in the future.
I also found that I could highly relate to this story, even though I don't live in New York City. I lived there until I was 5, and I don't think it's wrong to assume that I could have very simply have had a similar life. My parents lived in Queens and then Massapequa. On top of this, there is some talk in the movie of Mike and Dito doing a band that's going to sound like "Black Flag and the Bad Brains." Interestingly, we never see this band even though we continue to hear about. Having done a bit of research, the real life Dito Montiel was involved in the hardcore punk scene. As this is a scene that I am familiar with (both on the West Coast and the East Coast), I especially keyed into this aspect of the film. It was just these little things that all added up to make this movie resonate with me. There is something immediate and tangible about this story, no matter where you come from.
I wish I could stand on a street corner all day telling people how terrific this film is. Nobody turns in anything but truly startling performances. From top to bottom, this cast is solid, and the visual look of this film shows us just how sure of himself Montiel was in regards to experimentation. What I also loved was how honest the performances seemed, and how the characters (both young and old), seem to retain the nuances one would expect both in their youth and in middle age. I was excited to see a full page add for this film in the Los Angeles Times, and I am just hoping that there is enough star power to garner A Guide to Recognizing Your Saints a sizable audience. It really is a film that deserves to be seen and not relegated to the art film ghetto.