Guide to Recognizing Your Saints, A (United States, 2006)

A movie review by James Berardinelli

A Guide to Recognizing Your Saints illustrates that it's still possible to do something interesting with a familiar premise. Writer/director Dito Montiel, who has based the film on his memoirs, tells the story of a man who escaped from his "old" neighborhood to find success elsewhere, and hasn't looked back since. Now, with his father on his deathbed, he is trying to bridge a twenty year gap. The movie is not without flaws - editing has left parts of the film feeling choppy, there are a few too many directorial "flourishes," and the modern day segments get short shrift - but the performances are heartfelt and the ways in which Montiel refuses to oversentimentalize the story work.

The film opens in 2005 with Los Angeles-based author Dito (Robert Downey Jr.) receiving a phone call from his mother, Flori (Dianne Wiest). His father, Monty (Chazz Palmenteri), is dying - Flori wants Dito to return to his childhood neighborhood of Astoria, Queens and persuade Monty to go to a hospital. Reluctantly, Dito agrees. When he arrives, he discovers that the place hasn't changed much, but the people have. For example, his ex-girlfriend, Laurie (Rosario Dawson), is now grown up with a child of her own. She no longer carries a torch for Dito, but there is a current of buried resentment.

The bulk of A Guide to Recognizing Your Saints' narrative arrives via flashbacks, which take the action back to 1986 - the year Dito left Astoria. Roughly two-thirds of the movie unfolds in this time period, when Dito (Shia LaBeouf) is a teenager living at home with his parents. He hangs around with Antonio (Channing Tatum), one of the toughest kids in the neighborhood; as well as Mike (Martin Compston, from Ken Loach's Sweet Sixteen), an immigrant from Ireland; and Laurie (Melonie Diaz). Dito finds himself torn between Antonio's rough, gritty life and Mike's more enlightened approach, which includes poetry and dreams of seeing the world. Dito's growing wanderlust alienates him from Monty, who wants nothing more than to grow old with his son nearby, but random acts of violence convince Dito that if he is going to thrive, it must be elsewhere.

The movie's structure is awkward. Because of the way in which the filmmakers elect to interrupt the ongoing 1986 narrative, the 2005 scenes are as often impediments as they are a means to enrich the situations. Everything builds to several key contemporary sequences, but one wonders whether the film would have benefited from jettisoning the flashback approach. Too often, just as we're really becoming involved in the 1986 story, the movie pauses for 5 minutes to spend a little time with Robert Downey Jr. Another mild irritant is Montiel's tendency occasionally to show off. The scene where Dito and Mike meet on a train is an example. The two have a conversation, but it is constructed in such a way that sometimes they are speaking to one another and sometimes they seem to be thinking the words. It's a jarring stylistic tactic that takes the viewer out of the reality of the moment.

A Guide to Recognizing Your Saints does two different things from most entries into this sub-genre. Typically, escaping from a childhood neighborhood is viewed as an heroic act. Here, it's an act of betrayal and cowardice. Dito leaves because he cannot face up to the people and situations he is leaving behind. Secondly, the movie does not conclude with a melodramatic, weepy embrace between the alienated father and son. Wounds born of love that create the rift between Dito and Monty are not easily salved. There is a catharsis, but the final act is left untold.

The film's strongest performances come from Chazz Palminteri, who avoids slipping into the gangster role into which he has been stereotyped; Channing Tatum, whose Antonio is equal parts charisma and violence; and Melonie Diaz, who's a firebrand. It's hard to make much comment about the acting of Robert Downey Jr. or Rosario Dawson, since their screen time is limited. (Dawson, for example, is in only two scenes.) Shia LaBeouf doesn't always seem to "get" Dito; there are times when his acting strikes a wrong chord.

A Guide to Recognizing Your Saints is a pleasant enough movie that offers emotional resonance and a strong '80s pop soundtrack but isn't deserving of long-term recognition. It's a specific kind of narrative that speaks to a particular audience. Despite a cast of recognizable names, Montiel's feature debut is destined only for art house distribution because "small stories" without clean endings do not play well in multiplexes. Most viewers will discover this picture - and it is worth discovering - when it is released on DVD.

Guide to Recognizing Your Saints, A (United States, 2006)

Run Time: 1:38
U.S. Release Date: 2006-09-29
MPAA Rating: "R" (Violence, Profanity, Sexual Situations, Nudity)
Genre: DRAMA
Subtitles: none
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 1.85:1