These days, it seems that everyone has a story to tell; some stories are just more worth telling than others. Dito Montiel's story falls under the latter rubric. Montiel told his story in the 2003 book A Guide to Recognizing Your Saints, and three years later he turned that book into a movie. I'm not normally much for the mythology of the self so favored by many neophyte filmmakers, but Montiel's forthrightness and keen sense of observation, coupled with some interesting directorial choices, gives Saints a leg up on the average indie memoir.
Saints tells its spiky coming-of-age story on two temporal tracks. The first dominant thread is set in the early '80s, as young Dito (Shia LaBeouf) navigates the wilds of his Queens neighborhood and finds himself with an increasing yearning to break free and see something beyond what he already knows, much to the consternation of his father Monty (Chazz Palminteri); the second involves the current-day Montiel (Robert Downey Jr.) returning home to convince Monty to seek medical care and maybe attempt to patch up their tattered relationship in the process. It's fairly familiar stuff – true story or not, there's a lot of Mean Streets in this film's DNA, especially in the parts involving Dito's loose cannon friend Antonio (Channing Tatum). The strength of a good story, though, is often more in the telling than the content, and that holds fast for Montiel's tale.
Downey Jr. says at the film's outset, "I want to remember who these people are and what they meant to me – what they mean to me," and it's the second part of that phrase that makes Saints stick. A good deal of "…and we were never the same after that summer" films ascribe utmost importance to the narrow window of time covered in their flashback narratives; Montiel, on the other hand, is smart enough to acknowledge that time marches on and things keep changing even after what would be considered the great formative experience. The present-day segments aren't quite as compelling as the flashback segments, but they do present the idea that coming of age doesn't necessarily make you wiser or better – sometimes it just makes you older. Dito's burnout friend Nerf says about the neighborhood, "Things don't get better around here." Even as Montiel acknowledges that, he also pushes through that the best we can do is struggle to reconcile ourselves with our past; once we've done that, we can then try to force things to become a little bit better.
The past in question provides the meat on the bones of Saints, and it's quite the juicy package. For a first-timer, Montiel's directorial gifts are considerable. Some of his touches seem familiar – a little Spike Lee here with a characters-speaking-to-the-camera interlude, a little French New Wave there with the conscious desyncopation of dialogue and editing. What's important is that he's taken his influences and assembled them into a package that feels fresh by welding everything together with a solid sense of earnestness and street-level realism.
Montiel structures the film as an impressionistic memory piece, all overlapping dialogue and funky jump cuts (i.e. the scene where Dito meets Mike [Martin Compston] on the subway), which is generally an obfuscatory tactic, but Montiel doesn't go that route. Early on, young Dito tells neighborhood girl/eventual girlfriend Laurie (the fetching Melonie Diaz), "I really wanna fuck you," and it's this honesty without concern for glamour or sympathy that allows Montiel to escape the trap of avoidance, thus making his tale all the more compelling.
It also helps that Montiel's packing an incredible cast. LaBeouf proves he's ready to transcend his Disney origins in essaying the young Dito, and he's ably supported by Diaz (the best thing to come out of Raising Victor Vargas) and Tatum, the latter offering a finely conflicted portrait of the kind of mercurial asshole that dominates teen-male social groups, hiding his wounds and insecurities behind braggadacio and physical intimidation. The youthful cast is clearly having a blast with the gloriously juvenile reams of aimless profanity so favored by rebellious teens, as they sell it like it was improvised on the spot.
In the present day, Downey tamps down his natural motormouth mania to turn in a portrayal of a guy who has spent years trying to understand his past without fixing the damage done; in particular, he gets a great scene with Rosario Dawson, who shows up in a vivid cameo as the grown-up Laurie. The center of the film, though, is Palminteri as Monty the patriarch. Rather than the monstrous or ineffectual fathers that float through so many Sundance-approved flicks, Monty is a genial, warm, and affectionate dad who's also willing to play a surrogate for Antonio. His love for his son comes through just as genuine as his fear of losing him does, which makes his bitterness in the modern-day plot all the more caustic.
A Guide to Recognizing Your Saints eventually hinges on Dito making peace with the legacies left him by both Monty and Antonio – learning how to recognize his saints, if you will. These people still mean something to him, and Montiel wants us to see that so maybe they can mean something to us as well.