“A GUIDE TO RECOGNIZING YOUR SAINTS”
“You’re not going anywhere, Dito.”
During the long hot summer of 1986, Monty Montiel (Chazz Palminteri) over and over tells his teenage son Dito (Shia LaBeouf), “You’re not going anywhere, Dito.” The neighborhood in Astoria, Queens where they live is an insular, impoverished dead-end where “things don’t get fuckin’ better”, as Dito’s friend Nerf (Peter Tambakis) says and usually the only ways out are via drugs, a police van or a hearse.
Monty, however, is wrong about his son. In 2005, when the film opens, the adult Dito (Robert Downey Jr) has managed to become a successful literary figure in Los Angeles, giving public readings from his New York memoirs (“A Guide to Recognizing Your Saints”). The film is less concerned with where Dito has gone (or, how he got there) than with where he has come from. Dito may have turned his back on his friends and family a long time ago, but he is still haunted by his memories of that summer of 86. An unexpected call from his mother (Dianne Wiest) prompts him to go back home for the first time in two decades and he will catch up, take stock, face some ghosts and reconcile himself to his roots.
Even though the main character of “A Guide to Recognizing Your Saints” has the same name and storyline as the film’s first-time writer-director Dito Montiel (who draws vaguely on his own 2003 memoir, also entitled “A Guide to Recognizing Your Saints”), the film is ‘autobiographical’ only in the loosest sense of the word, with all its characters, including Dito himself, being fictionalized composites of real people, liberally distorted to suit the needs of cinematic drama.
The result is a film in which the ‘saints’ who have shaped Dito (both character and filmmaker) are not just his old pals from the ‘hood, but also the countless other films about life and death on New York’s mean streets. It is not that dumb-but-tough alpha-male Antonio (Channing Tatum), his disturbed brother Giussepe (Adam Scarimbolo), outsider new boy Mike O’Shea (Martin Compston), and Dito’s sensible girlfriend Laurie (Melonie Diaz) are not compelling figures – they are, as are all their players’ performances but it is very difficult to escape the impression that we have seen them all before. The situations in which they find themselves including escalating territorial disputes, loyalty under pressure are also familiar.
What keeps the film from boring conventionality is director Montiel’s approach to direction. Sometimes the tempo jostles and jerks, at other times it slows down, so that even the spectacle of Monty suffering a seizure can becomes somewhat lyrical. The switches from one time-period to another are fluid and the characters’ lines are occasionally presented in staggered voice-over, or even as text, as well as in dialogue.
This is an impressive showcase of different styles and moods that visually captures the clash and bustle of New York’s melting pot. An unusually subdued Downey comes to visit estranged father who’s is ill and refuses to go to the hospital. Downey hasn’t been back in many years and he left more than a few loose ends in his wake, including an old girlfriend (Rosario Dawson), a bitterly disappointed father, and a troubled best friend doing time at Rikers. As he returns, he reflects on his turbulent coming of age in the mid-’80s, when he and his rambunctious buddies tore up the neighborhood and got themselves into trouble with local thugs.
Downey’s scenes are among the film’s most wrenching parts, particularly in a lovely ending when he finally visits his incarcerated friend. But, the director’s revisiting his past on the screen, makes his memories all too cinematic.