A Guide to Recognizing Your Saints, written and directed by Dito Montiel from his 2003 memoir about growing up in Astoria, Queens, in the 1980s, prowls and struts through some familiar movie territory: the ill-advised shenanigans of white ethnic teenagers in the outer boroughs of New York. Having grown up ourselves on films like Mean Streets, The Lords of Flatbush, and Saturday Night Fever, we viewers know that these rowdy, inarticulate boys are bonded by an unspoken love, that their false bravado will get them into terrible trouble, and that only one of them has any hope of making it out of the neighborhood.
Like the boys, Montiel's first film is rough and uneven, with more energy than it knows what to do with. But it still manages to feel fresh and authentic, perhaps because it's so deeply autobiographical. New York street toughs are a cinematic cliché for a reason; they exist, or at least existed, and unless he's a very good liar, Dito Montiel was one of them.
The one who made it out, of course. Montiel (played as an adult by Robert Downey Jr.) is a Los Angeles-based writer who hasn't been back to the neighborhood in 20 years. As he performs a spoken-word piece in a nightclub about his childhood, his mother, Flori (Dianne Wiest), hesitantly dials the phone to call Dito back home to visit his dying father, Monty (Chazz Palminteri). Abruptly, we find ourselves back in the summer of 1986, where we'll spend most of the rest of the movie. The cuts back to Dito's present-day visit are so rare and brief that we forget about the flashback structure entirely, despite the always-welcome presence of Downey, whose face grows more interesting with every fall from grace.
The younger Dito (Shia LaBeouf) is the most sensitive and least narrow-minded among his group of friends. Which isn't saying a lot: They're a brutish, preverbal bunch, led by the hot-tempered Antonio (Channing Tatum) and tagged along after by Antonio's not-so-bright brother Giuseppe (Adam Scarimbolo). They spend the long, hot summer days picking fights with Puerto Rican hoods and alternately taunting and feeling up the neighborhood girls (Melonie Diaz and Julia Garro). A Scottish kid named Mike (Martin Compston) gives Dito a glimpse of the world beyond Queens, and the two boys travel together to exotic locales like Manhattan and Coney Island, and talk about escaping to California. But Dito's father rails about the uselessness of ever leaving the neighborhood; his fierce overprotectiveness keeps his son locked in an embrace that feels more like a headlock.
Montiel's dialogue, especially in the street scenes, sometimes recalls the urban poetry of early Bruce Springsteen lyrics. It's funny without punch lines and evocative without straining for effect. But his pacing and structure feel off. Aside from the aforementioned flashback problem, there are long stretches in which we watch the boys idly bullshitting, followed by frantic bursts of plot development. For me, I could have done with less plot and more bullshit; the last quarter of the movie contains three or four violent incidents that occur in such quick succession that we never get to see the boys really react to them. The excuse that this is the way things happened in Montiel's real life doesn't fly—he's still responsible for transmuting his past into art, making it matter to us.
For all its flaws, A Guide to Recognizing Your Saints is more than vivid enough to speak to a generation too young to remember Saturday Night Fever. Its anachronistic soundtrack of '70s power anthems from bands like Journey and Kiss captures the way some working-class neighborhoods seem fixed in time, mired in the popular culture of a decade ago. The cast won a special prize at Sundance for best ensemble acting, and if no one's performance stands out, it's because everyone's outstanding, including Shia LaBeouf (who, with a long child-actor pedigree behind him, easily could have seemed overbred for this tough-kid role). Saints is so personal and site-specific a work that it's hard to imagine what Dito Montiel will pull out of his hat for an encore. But even if this is the only movie he has in him, the Queens kid hasn't done so badly for himself after all.