Movie Review by Siobhan Daly
Starring: Robert Downey Jr, Shia LaBeouf, Chazz Palminteri, Dianne Wiest
Director: Dito Montiel
A GUIDE TO RECOGNIZING YOUR SAINTS is a powerful and hard-hitting film based on the autobiography of director and screenwriter, Dito Montiel. Focusing on a group of young tempestuous friends, it follows them growing up, fighting, trying to get out of and dying in the violent neighbourhood of Astoria, Queens, New York in the 1980s.
Robert Downey Jr plays Dito, now a successful writer in his mid-thirties and having to face returning to Astoria after almost fifteen years in Californian self-exile. Forced to face the past he has been hiding from, his return home brings up all the memories of why he left in the first place. Flashback to 1986 and Dito (Shia LaBeouf) roams the streets with Antonio (Channing Tatum) whose aggressive rage is painfully palpable, Giuseppe (Adam Scarimbolo) and Nerf (Peter Anthony Tambakis), boys with nothing much to do and nowhere interesting to go. Meaningless sex, drugs and alcohol are the main attractions, dulling the searing boredom, poverty and the brutal reality of life. Trips into Manhattan are looked down upon as being overly aspiring. With the arrival of Mike O’Shea (Martin Compston), the poetry-reading Scot with an Irish name, Dito’s horizons are broadened and not just through smoking one too many illegal substances. He starts to dream of a world outside of Queens, of starting a band, of travelling and of doing something other than living his life in the local neighbourhood with his parents. But his hopes and desires don’t necessarily make him popular and Dito’s troubles are only just beginning.
The saints of the title are Dito’s friends who in hindsight guided him through the harsh streets and into a better life, ranging from his loving childhood sweetheart Laurie (Melonie Diaz) to Antonio, who is fiercely protective of Dito, a character trait that will change both of their lives. As the sweltering New York summer rolls on, the story follows key events that forced Dito into moving across a continent and reveals what he left behind.
The directing is outstanding and refreshingly original, especially considering Dito Montiel is a first-time director. The details, including the rough camerawork, funky 80s soundtrack and even the dirt on the characters clothes and bodies, serve to create a realistic environment where the audience is constantly reminded that the events of the film may seem unbelievable but they all indeed took place. ‘Gritty’ is a word used too lightly in urban films but the dirt here is so prevalent it’s almost tangible. Dito is tough and uncompromising, much like the streets of New York themselves, in facing his demons. The film has a cathartic sense, as if he is exercising his issues through confronting them, by finally honouring the influence and love of his ‘saints’ who encouraged him to be more, even if it may not have been in the way he expected, and therefore finally finding peace that he has been so desperately looking for.
If I could use superlative expletives to describe how good it was, I would. However I will just say how profound, powerful and moving it was. I have rarely seen such consistently strong acting from an entire cast. Shia LaBeouf and in particular Channing Tatum gave impressively forceful performances that belie their young ages. Tatum steals absolutely every scene that he is in with an emotional and physical intensity that has been likened to Brando, high praise indeed but praise which is accurately given. Chazz Palminteri and Dianne Wiest as Dito’s parents are also deserving of a mention for their passionate and heartfelt depictions of parents trying to raise their son to the best of the ability but in one of the most inconducive environments to a healthy lifestyle imaginable. Produced by Sting and his wife Trudy Styler, and already having won awards at Sundance, this is a film with a justified buzz and one that should definitely be acknowledged by the Academy.
Watching this film is the emotional equivalent of ten rounds in the boxing ring with Tyson. Destined to be a classic, and rightly so.