A Guide to Recognizing Your Saints

on September 29, 2006 by Ray Greene
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If John Cassavetes had made coming-of-age stories, they might have turned out a lot like first-time writer/director Dito Montiel's "A Guide to Recognizing Your Saints." Developed at Sundance in workshop form from Montiel's autobiographical memoir of the same name and acted by a rich ensemble cast, this is loose, episodic material, unified mostly by Montiel's obvious affection for the lost world it replicates and by the remorse he expresses through the addition of a modern plotline featuring Robert Downey Jr. as Dito at middle-age.

The heart of this story is in the long-ago past, though, where young Dito (Shia La Beouf) and his ragged teenage friends are growing up wild in Astoria, Queens. Young Dito's life is defined by three things: a difficult relationship with his garrulous but stifling father (Chazz Palminteri); theblandly accepting love of his long-suffering mother (Dianne Wiest); and a growing wariness toward Antonio, the brutish, abused kid who views the Montiels as a surrogate family.

Like many a young artist before him, Dito hears the call of greater things, and the sorrow at the center of his predicament is that he can't reach for the moon from the place where he's standing. There are real as well as spiritual threats to confront; a plot thread involving Dito's inadvertent and escalating problems with a local street gang gradually emerges as "Saints'" major dramatic propellant. But street violence is mostly a symptom of what Dito ultimately has to leave behind him: the crumpled and perhaps lethal aspects of a world measured in city blocks, and the suffocating narrowness of a community where even a whimsical subway ride from Queens to Manhattan is viewed with suspicion as a betrayal of kind and class.

Montiel knows this material like his own skin, and it shows in the nervy energy he gives to every frame, especially those of the childhood material. The characters strut and preen as if listening to unheard music, and even the least of them is cast and directed with such raw economy and specificity that whole worlds of experience are suggested in just the way they shrug or smile or glance away from each other when they talk. The noisy overlapping conversations, the manic love/hate polarities defining fathers, sons, lovers and friends, it all feels lived, and the performances are unwaveringly true.

Wiest and Palminteri in particular are in absolute peak form and deserve Oscar nominations for their heart-rending embodiments of Dito's well-meaning but uncomprehending parents. Palminteri's long war against being typecast as a mafia goombahs ends in permanent victory here with a raw, uncompromising enactment of a blue-collar man shaking and bear-hugging his son as if he could make love spill out of him like lost change from a broken candy machine. Wiest tears at the heart with gentler tools, as when, in a first face-to-face conversation with her son in over 20 years, she smiles with guileless pleasure and says, "It's so good to say your name again," and then adds offhandedly, "to you," encompassing two decades of loss and longing and a lifetime of forgiveness in the way she says just two simple words.

There are structural issues with the plot, the pop music score is both random and completely out of period, and Downey, though his usual proficient self, is perhaps too urbane a player to fully convince as the grown-up Dito. But these are small quibbles given how well Montiel has etched a time, a place and the people within it. Like James Joyce's Dublin, Dito's Queens is so vivid yet so confining that we understand both why Dito had to leave it, and why he'll probably never write anything nearly as meaningful about anyplace else. Starring Robert Downey Jr., Shia La Beouf, Rosario Dawson, Chazz Palminteri and Dianne Wiest. Directed and written by Dito Montiel. Produced by Trudie Styler, Travis Swords, Charlie Corwin and Clara Markowicz. A First Look release. Drama. Rated R for pervasive language, some violence, sexuality, and drug use.Running time: 90 min.

Tags: Robert Downey Jr., Shia La Beouf, Rosario Dawson, Chazz Palminteri, Dianne Wiest, Dito Montiel, Trudie Styler, Travis Swords, Charlie Corwin, Clara Markowicz, A First Look release, Drama, lifetime, energy, love, teenage
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