A Guide to Recognizing Your Saints

October, 2006, Drama

Directed by:Dito Montiel

Starring:Robert Downey Jr., Shia LaBeouf, Rosario Dawson, Melonie Diaz, Chazz Palminteri, Dianne Wiest, and Channing Tatum

A Guide To Recognizing Your Saints

The Astoria section of Queens has been producing "real New Yorkers" for generations. This blue-collar neighborhood, located directly across the East River from Manhattan, is home to people of every race, religion and ethnic stripe. Screenwriter/director Orlando Anthony "Dito" Montiel Jr.  mines his own adolescence there in the mid-80's to provide a pungently-flavored of taste of what it's like to grow up in such a rich stew of unwritten cultural rules and aggressive pursuit of the American dream. Member of Major Conflict, (a New York hardcore band) and later lead singer of Gutterboys, Montiel's ear for the spoken word serves him well in this impressionistic take on the tensions which arise when a talented teenager decides to leave the tight-knit community of family and friends which have formed his world. Reacting to the violence, drug use and provincialism that permeate the borough and thus the self-imposed boundaries of his life, Dito, (played by Shia LaBoeuf as an adolescent and Robert Downey Jr. as an adult) abruptly leaves home to pursue a musical career in Los Angles. 

In doing so, he chooses to deliberately cut himself off from his long-suffering mother, (Diane Wiest) his loquacious, opinionated father, (Chaz Palminteri) a sensitive & principled Hispanic girlfriend and a quartet of male buddies straight out of The West Side Story. Breaking away from one's roots might seem a rather thin storyline upon which to build a full-length feature film, but Montiel manages to make this examination of his decision and the implications arising from it surprisingly affecting, thanks to(1)  a script that unsparingly analyzes his motivations and(2) the performances of his cast, a slick blend of old, familiar faces and new exciting ones..

Sexual prowess, machismo and the extraction of revenge for perceived slights constitute the core values of Dito's friends, (Joey, Antonio, & Nerf) who punctuate every interchange with language so consistently profane it would make even the hardiest sailor blanch. Addressing neighborhood girls who date them with the crudest vulgarity, these self-appointed tough guys wander the streets and rooftops of their neighborhood, terrified at the prospect of having to grow up and deal with the adult world they're about to enter. Antonio, (Channing Tatum) victim of an abusive father, takes out his simmering rage on anyone who dares to cross his path; when he kills a man who has beaten Dito for a perceived slight, payback visits another of Dito's friends and puts Antonio in the penitentiary. The combination of those two events drives Dito to strike out on his own over the emotionally bitter objections of his father who refuses to have anything to do with Dito after his departure. Only his father's need to enter the hospital finally impels Dito to return home and deal with the repercussions of cutting himself off from everyone and everything in his past. Forced to deal directly with the pain he caused, Dito finally realizes that the very people he rejected were the ones who gave him the strength to succeed.

While Saints may not be especially profound, its utter lack of guile delivers 98 minutes of gritty realism. In it, the director presents, warts and all, the facts of his background and the price he paid for not realizing just how important his roots were to his development. The result is the most honest, vibrant filmed autobiography audiences are likely to get for a long, long time.

But Montiel's candor and skills as a director and writer are only part of what's   admirable here; Downey, Palminteri and Wiest, along with nearly a dozen actors in crucially important roles bring a heartfelt script to life, imbuing it with a sad dignity belied by the language in which it’s expressed. 

Downey towers over this collection of wonderful performances, palpable melancholia washing over his grubby, unshaven face in waves of unutterable sadness. He has the fewest number of lines among the leading players in this cast, yet he manages to covey the heartbreak of someone who's come to realize that he's missed a train no longer operating, and that its last scheduled run might just have been the only one that could get him where he needs to go. Downey's Dito embodies that hard-won wisdom, as painful in its realization as were the conditions that lead up to it. It's a masterful performance by an actor whose own personal life, (punctuated by repeated bouts of drug addiction) may well have provided the experiential basis upon which his Dito is built. Whatever the source, Downey deserves Oscar consideration for his riveting portrayal.

The verdict? This one's a diamond: small, hard and brilliant.

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