A GUIDE TO RECOGNIZING YOUR SAINTS B-
USA (98 mi) 2006 d: Dito Montiel
A well-meaning, heartfelt effort that gets caught up in its own love for itself, that probably places too much emphasis on the worth and emphasis of its autobiographical significance. Ultimately, it means less to us than it does for first time writer and director Dito Montiel who made a movie telling the story of his life growing up in Astoria, Queens, where it was shot. Whether he has another movie in him, we’ll have to see, but this one, structurally, attempts to capture the street realism with jumpy hand-held camera action, overlapping dialogue laced with effusive profanity, scenes that are prone to explode in violent overreaction and characters yelling at the top of their lungs, also of course, an adolescent mentality where decisions are made instantly, on the spur of the moment, and lives are ruined or lost in the blink of an eye.
The best thing about this film is the strength of the performances, which is evident in the opening shot, a close up on Diane Wiest that nearly brings tears in the opening 30 seconds as she makes a telephone call to Dito, who has been away from home for fifteen years, but is called back home due to the deteriorating health of his father, Chazz Palminteri. After a brief glimpse of Dito in the present, who is being recognized for his latest book by the film name, the film breaks into an interwoven flashback structure revealing the summer of 1986, only occasionally returning to the present until the end, which is much less developed. Dito is played in the present by Robert Downey Jr, who has recollections of his haunted past as he returns home, where as a teen he is played by Shia LaBeouf, a kid filled with the curiosity and vitality of youth, but who strangely gets caught up in the middle of a graffiti war that resembles gang behavior, though the film clearly de-emphasizes Dito’s gangland affiliation. Instead, it’s more like roving neighborhood kids who never leave the neighborhood, who, for better or for worse, are stuck with each other in their claustrophobic environment. Melonie Diaz is eye-opening as an alluring Puerto Rican girl that becomes Dito’s girl friend, played later by Rosario Dawson, who hangs in a pack with trash-mouths Julia Garro and Eleonore Hendricks, while Dito hangs with Antonio (Channing Tatum), a barely literate extremely physical Stanley Kowalski wannabe while still a teen, a brooding, anguished guy with an abusive father who responds only from his gut, having already lost all faith in himself, while hanging out with guys called Joey, Nerf, and Antonio’s mildly retarded brother Giuseppe.
The opening monologue from Downey Jr. as Dito makes it clear as he introduces the characters from his book that good things don’t await most of them, as some end up dead or in prison, as everyone’s lives swerve off course at the same time, yet whether still alive or not, they’re all real. Despite being a teenage coming of age film, there’s surprisingly little focus on sex or AIDS, which were certainly the rage in the 80’s, and instead becomes a series of memory tributes, barely holding them all together by the end, where, for whatever reason, Dito has disassociated himself from all family and friends, and resembles a downbeat ghost of his former self when he returns home, yet he’s clearly convinced that each one of them had a hand in his ultimate survival. Unfortunately, this film resembles a style we’ve seen before in much better films, MEAN STREETS (1973) or RUMBLE FISH (1983), which were more startlingly original, where the profanity-laced dialogue felt more natural and fit such a unique cinematic expression. This is a Sundance Institute product that resembles the naturalistic indie style of RAISING VICTOR VARGAS (2002) or the recent QUINCEAÑERA (2006), all in my view, much better films. Stick around for the end credits, as there’s a brief real-life autobiographical sequence “after” the credits have finished rolling.