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Guide to Recognizing Your Saints, A

Reviewed By brianorndorf
Posted 10/20/06 16:14:44

"A guide to recognizing how great Dianne Wiest is"
4 stars (Worth A Look)

Some sickening arty bear traps are laid in the first 20 minutes of “A Guide to Recognizing Your Saints,” and if you can avoid them, the film is sure to grow on you with its evocative tale of teen survival and adult regret.

Dito Montiel’s “A Guide to Recognizing Your Saints” spills onto the screen with all the exaggerated despair and vocal fury of slam poetry; it’s an imperfect creation of nostalgia and lament, perhaps a bit more freeform than it should be, but there are enough emotional truths contained within Montiel’s debut film to keep your attention.

“Saints” is Montiel’s adaptation of his 2001 memoir, which covered life growing up in the shadow of violence in Astoria, Queens. In 2005, when author Montiel (Robert Downey Jr.) learns of his father’s (Chazz Palmenteri) terminal cancer, he’s asked by his mother (Dianne Wiest) to return home to the neighborhood he ran away from 20 years earlier. Once back, the flood of memories overwhelms Montiel, returning him to the hot summer nights he spent getting into scrapes with his friends (including Channing Tatum), and flirting with a local girl dying for an emotional connection (Rosario Dawson).

Undoubtedly, “Saints” is an overwhelmingly muddled motion picture that Montiel, as a director, can barely keep in a straight line. The filmmaker vomits his ideas on the screen, searching for some magical way to help lug his film away from traditional flashback territory, but lacking the directorial muscle to get his ideas across without derailing the moment. Early on in the film, Montiel pulls out every arty trick he can think of to spice up “Saints,” even putting written dialog up on the screen to vaguely maintain the literary origin of the story.

The flashes of art-house stretching spoil “Saints” because they’re so obvious and useless, as though the director wasn’t sure how he wanted his film to feel at the beginning of the editing process, so he tried everything to find the correct tone. Also infuriating is the tendency of the performances to swing wildly out of control; Montiel instructs his cast to overact, leaving some scenes, including a cringe-inducing moment of teenage lust in a humid stairwell, resembling an acting workshop for 9th graders. Occasional moments are decimated by this directorial mandate, because, to be blunt, it’s uncomfortable to watch a limited talent like Tatum try to improv or attempt to convey complexity.

After the first 20 minutes, “Saints” smoothes out the kinks and starts to resemble the open wound collection of memories it was intended to be. The adult part of the cast couldn’t be better (it’s a treat to see Weist get great material again), and they know what to do with the material even when Montiel doesn’t. “Saints” plays in the realm of regret, but it only tiptoes into sentimentality. Mostly it’s a blunt reading of street claustrophobia as young Dito (played by Shia LeBeouf) becomes aware that he needs to ditch his neighborhood before the sheer weight of its apathy toward young lives kills him, either psychologically or literally.

“Saints” ends as soon as it starts to really expose an appealing investigation of heartbreak and homecoming. It’s a startling jolt when the end credits appear, and I can see Montiel’s reluctance to drag his film out any further.

“Saints” is about exorcizing emotional demons before they turn cancerous; when time finally comes for the characters to spill their guts to each other, it should be the moment we’ve all been waiting for, not the ride into the sunset.

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