Coming of age dramas have been done to death, with every new film trying to recreate the feel of, and love for, J.D. Salinger’s classic book The Catcher in the Rye. But a new indie film, A Guide to Recognizing Your Saints, may be the first attempt that brings with it a breath of fresh air.
Shot on location in Astoria, Queens, A Guide to Recognizing Your Saints looks and feels, at times, like an independent film. And rightfully so. Based on the book of the same name, the film was directed by author Dito Montiel, a new-comer to the art of cinema. Yet with Sting and wife Trudie Styler serving as producers, and starring Robert Downey, Jr., Rosario Dawson, and Channing Tatum, it also has the feel of a big-budget Hollywood drama.
Centered on the life of Dito Montiel, the movie jumps back and forth in time, from 1986 to the present. When his father’s health worsens, Dito, now living 3,000 miles from home in California, is summoned back to Astoria by his mother and friends who want him to mend his relationship with his family before it’s too late. As Dito travels across the country, and through the streets of his old hometown, memories of his life in Astoria circa 1986 come rushing back.
With the help of flashbacks and his old friends, the audience learns why Dito left Queens 20 years ago. And while the method for telling the story is essentially the same as in every other movie of this genre, the unique use of voiceovers during a number of flashbacks adds depth that would otherwise not be there. Rather than focusing on what the characters were thinking at such pivotal (or not so pivotal) moments, the voiceovers add what the characters are saying while the images on the screen tell a story and show emotion. Much of the dialogue is left out in these scenes, as it is the imagery that tells the better story.
The film moves quickly, with the majority of the film taking place in 1986. Robert Downey, Jr., playing the adult Dito, receives top billing, but is barely in the movie. Rather, it is Shia LaBeouf, the young Dito, who deserves credit for an outstanding performance. And although Montiel has admitted that LaBeouf was not who he had originally pictured as Dito, it is clear that he was an exceptional choice. Channing Tatum, as Dito’s friend Antonio, also gives a five-star performance as an angry, abused teen who, stereotypically, has a softer side. And Chazz Palminteri, of A Bronx Tale fame, steals the spotlight as Dito’s father, Monty. Palminteri, though in a supporting role, shines as the stern, loving father and often steals the scene from the younger actors.
The films only flaw is the ending. Closing on adult Dito, in 2006, the ending is abrupt and unexpected. After a recent screening of the film at the Museum of the Moving Image, members of the audience were left wondering what had happened in Dito’s life. Overall, however, the film is a must-see for all fans of independent works. And for all fans of New York movies, this film is as New York as you can get.