Three rugged teenage boys walk down a street in an evidently lower middle class neighborhood. Teenage girls dressed in skimpy attire beckon to them seductively. Far off, a subway car drifts towards New York City, the only way out of the prison of Astoria, Queens, NY.
This is the setting of the indie film “A Guide to Recognizing Your Saints.” The movie tells the semi-autobiographical story of Dito (Robert Downey Jr. “A Scanner Darkley”), a successful writer in Los Angeles who gets word from a friend that his father needs to be taken to a hospital. Dito goes back to his hometown only to discover that very little has changed since he left 15 years ago.
Dito then flashes back to his teenaged days and sees himself (Shia LaBeouf “Even Stevens”) and his other friends go through the experiences that led up to his departure from his hometown. His friends were Antonio (Channing Tatum from “She’s the Man”), Nerf (Peter Anthony Tambakis from “Igby Goes Down”), Mike O’Shea (Martin Compston from “Wild Country”) and Laurie (Melonie Diaz from “Lords of Dogtown”).
Writer and director Dito Montiel weaves the story of his childhood, where his friends and situation in Astoria keep him from realizing his full potential. That is until Mike O’Shea, his new friend, tries to encourage Dito to do better; telling him that it is just a matter of willpower and courage to get out of Astoria and away from everything that is holding him back.
Echoing this to a degree is Laurie who puts all her energy and efforts to get Dito to care for her as much as she cares for him.
Antonio practically lived in Dito’s house; Dito’s own father takes pride in Antonio throughout the movie as though he was truly his own son. Nerf is a bit stranger looking than the other two boys but now has a car that his mother lets him practice driving with. Mike is the new transfer student who’s Scottish, but lived in Ireland, in Dito’s class. Laurie is the supposed “swimmer” who dated Dito before he left Astoria.
Helping to carry the story along are the young actors playing the parts in the film’s flashback sequences. Shia LaBeouf’s acting skills have surpassed those of his early days on Disney’s “Even Stevens” where because of his juvenile character, he was unable to grow as an actor. In this movie, LaBeouf’s teenaged portrayal of Dito may have even gone beyond the acting of Robert Downey Jr. as the older Dito. In every scene LaBeouf’s acting is captivating, especially the one right after his best friend is shot and killed by a little kid from the neighborhood. LaBeouf’s acting even makes you wonder why Robert Downey Jr. is listed first.
Diaz plays the young Laurie just as well as the actress for the adult Laurie, Rosario Dawson. Diaz plays the young naive girl in love with Dito, who she desires to do well in life. When one watches her, especially a female viewer, one can feel all the pain she endures for loving the wrong guy. From getting bruised by Dito by accident to being left behind when Dito leaves town without her, Diaz brings her best acting ability to the screen.
The dialogue is true to what would be said of teens in Queens. It wasn’t clean, it wasn’t perfect, and at times it was juvenile in tone and manner. Hardcore Antonio spoke in a way that reflected his muscle over brain attitude; he used simpler terms and words than Dito. The whole cast uses politically incorrect terms and slurs for the other racial groups found in their neighborhood.
The movie’s script and cinematography style is very different from what a person would get from watching a mainstream film such as “Employee of the Month.” Different techniques are used within the movie.
In most of the scenes, there are five or six different conversations going on at the same time; a viewer may find it difficult to pick one out of the others. The camera constantly keeps changing focus and angles. Sometimes it would randomly zoom in on one character’s body part or action; at other times, it would broadly pan over the entire scene before settling on a character.
In a scene that takes place between Mike and Dito, they are on a subway car, and as it passes by old crumbling houses, it focuses on the outside scene sweeping by as though projecting to the viewer an idea of how swiftly life passes by as you get older. It also serves as a visual to the audience to illustrate how much Dito wants to escape his hometown.
While each individual actor and actress had amazing talent, they also shone as a group. Paliminteri and Dianne West, who plays Dito’s older mother, worked well to portray the loving relationship that existed between Dito’s parents. It is no surprise that the cast received an award for best ensemble performance.
The young actors shine and go beyond what is expected of them, the cinematography was fresh and new, and one would feel a sense of enlightenment in their own personal life as they leave the theater after seeing this film.
*** 1/2 out of 4 stars