With “A Guide to Recognizing Your Saints,” Dito Montiel is aiming for a Scorsese-style, coming-of-age journey inspired by his own New York upbringing.
The location is the Astoria section of Queens rather than Little Italy; the time is 1986 instead of 1956. But it’s just as deeply steeped in period details, just as vivid in its gritty realism.
In writing and directing his first film, based on his memoir of the same name, Montiel even shot at some of the same spots he frequented in his youth — before he became a Calvin Klein underwear model, that is. And he’s populated the neighborhood streets with several young, unknown actors who radiate heat in short-shorts and tight tank tops, all conveying the restlessness of feeling angry, bored and hormonally charged in the summer, in the city.
(Despite its authenticity, the use of pop songs to punctuate key moments, a favorite Scorsese tactic, distractingly is a bit off. Gerry Rafferty’s “Baker Street,” for example, plays during a crucial confrontation, but it was a hit in 1978. Maybe we’re just being picky. But if Montiel is trying to take us back to a specific moment in history, he should be more accurate, especially since he used to play in a punk band.)
But there’s a more significant problem here. “Guide” is rich in nostalgia but it goes nowhere. It features several strong performances from its large ensemble cast, notably from Robert Downey Jr. and a maturing Shia LaBeouf as Dito at various stages, and Chazz Palminteri as his old-school father. (The Dito character isn’t supposed to be autobiographical, but instead functions as a composite of people Montiel knew.)
In his back-and-forth time structure, his characters seem to exist in individual vignettes with little momentum. Too often, Montiel takes the same dreamy, impressionistic approach he used in writing the book itself. And for a film that’s intended as a pure, unflinching snapshot, he needlessly relies on gimmicky techniques.
A character will look into the camera and say, “I’m Diane and I like to [expletive],” while provocatively licking a Popsicle. Lines of dialogue appear on screen while a character is saying them, as if the audience is part of some giant table reading. Then the director will drop these devices as quickly as he picked them up.
Despite these flaws, though, the acting undeniably shines through.
Downey, playing Dito in the present day, is subtly powerful as he learns that his father is dying and returns home to see him for the first time in 20 years; their reunion is palpably tense. In flashbacks, we learn why he felt the urge to leave New York for California during that violent summer, and we meet the people who were pivotal in his life back then, all of whom he’s abandoned.
They include his idealistic mother (the lovely Dianne Wiest); his tough-guy best friend, Antonio (Channing Tatum with his shirt off as usual), whose father constantly abuses him; and his outspoken girlfriend, Laurie (played by Melonie Diaz as a teenager, Rosario Dawson as an adult).
Dito, Laurie and all their pals strut around with the false bravado of adolescence, trying to kill time. They brawl with a local graffiti artist who becomes increasingly violent. They drink, get stoned and talk graphically about having sex on rooftops, which doesn’t seem quite so shocking a decade after “Kids.” Eventually, everyone ends up beating and/or screaming obscenities at each other. And that’s about it.
LaBeouf is in the center of all this as young Dito, trying to make some sense of who he is amid the poverty, chaos and clash of cultures. He’s put together quite an eclectic career for a 20-year-old, ranging from the children’s series “Even Stevens” (which earned him a Daytime Emmy) to the Keanu Reeves thriller “Constantine” to the family-friendly golf movie “The Greatest Game Ever Played.”
There’s an everyman likability about his features, yet a confidence in the way he carries himself. “A Guide to Recognizing Your Saints” points to greater things to come.