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.