The Reeler


September 29, 2006

A Guide to Recognizing Your Saints

Queens native Montiel makes high-strung directing debut

Neorealism meets New York urban life in A Guide to Recognizing Your Saints, Dito Montiel's adaptation of his 2003 autobiography. Stylistically, it's a mostly happy marriage that translates the sweetness of The 400 Blows into a Mean Streets dialect, where childhood innocence slams into the pavement of an ugly world.

Montiel has three layers of presence in the film: In addition to serving as writer-director, his character is the story's hero, both as an adventuresome juvenile (Shia LaBeouf) growing up in Astoria, Queens during the 1980s, and in a present-day scenario (Robert Downey Jr.) struggling to confront his past. The last two are apparently embellishments on Montiel's real life, but the care with which he develops the solemn, irate protagonist leaves no question to where the story's sympathies lie: From the first scene, Montiel begins building up to a tale of redemption.

Contemporary Dito, living a comfortable Los Angeles life after publishing his book, hears from his mother (Dianne West) that his estranged father (Chazz Palminteri) is ailing. As he hesitates to return home and encounter an urban world he abandoned 15 years before, the film flashes back to his early teenage years and stays there for most of its running time. That's good, because the present-day scenes are generally pretty weak, mostly featuring a sad-eyed Downey, Jr. looking, well, sad. He does manage fine work during the crucial confrontation with his elderly pops; when tears start flowing, the Oscar buzz is almost louder than his voice.

But other sequences are less inspired, suffering from that uniquely indie illness wherein a handful of high-profile actors seem to have found some spare time for a few scenes in between a slew of other projects. (Rosario Dawson, for example, playing the grown up version of Dito's teen muse Laurie, appears in roughly a scene and a half.) Of course, we might attributue this to Montiel's obvious fixation on the story of his youth--a gorgeous emotional journey about fraying connections between friends and family. The subdued Palminteri makes a great dad, initially friendly not only with his own son but also with Dito's thuggish pal Giuseppe (Adam Scarimbolo) and hanger-on Nerf (Peter Tambakis). They're a raucous bunch, stemming from Giuseppe's angst as an abused son and the general unforgivability of 1985 Queens.

Dito himself is a likable guy with ambitious dreams of hitting the road alongside his girl (Melonie Diaz in the flashbacks), but the gang's early, amusing teenage tomfoolery gives way to shocking violence, family turmoil and, in more than one unexpected turn, death. As these tensions mount, first-time director Montiel adapts complementary formal strategies. Toying with the soundtrack, he turns down the volume in scenes involving exhaustive shouting and breathless pacing. Instead of using the typical jerky jump-cut strategy, he cuts to black during moments of breathless tension, then returns to the action, creating a jarring experience that literalizes the anxiety in the room.

The mood of the crucial, chaotic set piece uniting these elements gorgeously oscillates from familial love to stomach-churning resentment, setting up Palminteri's epithet in the final act: "Go back to California like the rat that you are," he bellows when Downey Jr. shows up in faux bohemian garb. His tone--in keeping with Saints' alluring inconsistency--is just sharp enough to break your heart.

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