Guide to Recognizing Your Saints, A: Dito Montiel Coming of Age Tale, Starring Robert Downey Jr., Chazz Palminteri and Dianne Wiest

Given the number of first-time directors at Sundance, and that many of them are in their twenties and don’t have much adult experience to draw upon, it’s not surprising to see so many coming-of-age yarns year after year.

One of the more powerful sagas in this year’s Dramatic Competition, Dito Montiel’s A Guide to Recognizing Your Saints, joins the honorable company of “Manito” and “Raising Victor Vargas,” all quintessentially New York City coming-of-age films, with a strong racial angle, that had recently premiered at Sundance.

An entrepreneurial distributor could generate some coin and buzz with a theatrical release, and the movie should serve as a calling card to Dito Montiel, as a potentially gifted screenwriter and director, who needs to acquire better technical skills.

Montiel’s “A Guide” is in the classic vein of Scorsese’s seminal “Mean Streets,” as well as such “hang-out neighborhood” pictures as Barry Levinson’s “Diner,” all sagas about young men who refuse or can’t mature, the efforts it takes to assume responsibility for their decisions, and the price paid for leaving behind loved ones and intimate community.

Montiel enlivens tough autobiographical material, based on his own memoir about growing up in the 1980s on Astoria’s mean streets. “A Guide” benefits from restrained work by Robert Downey Jr., who plays Dito’s alter ego as an adult, Chazz Palminteri and Dianne Wiest as Dito’s parents, and Rosario Dawson, playing the mature woman of the girl Dito once loved.

The moral is simple: Good or bad, there is no escaping the old neighborhood, or more pointedly, the past, in this case one’s buddies and parents. Told in a familiar flashback format, “A Guide” traces back to the summer 1986, when Dito and his chums strolled the mean streets of Queens and hanged out under the Hellsgate Bridge. In their own minds, they are big men on the block, but, ultimately, they are creatures of habits, afraid to leave the confines of their small worlds.

Shia LaBeouf plays Dito in the 1986 version a typical teenager going through the pains of adolescence with his small group of friends. Nerf (Peter Tambakis) is a mama’s boy at his house, while brothers Antonio (Channing Tatum) and Giuseppe (Adam Scarimbolo) suffer abuse at the hands of their father.

Dito’s parents, Monty (Palminteri) and Flori (Wiest), struggle to make ends meet in their crowded, noisy, working-class neighborhood, but they love Dito and his friends. Monty takes a particular interest in Antonio, wishing to give the volatile boy some values.

Like most kids his age, Dito isn’t sure what he wants to do, except that he wants to get out of his neighborhood. He’s helped by Mike O’Shea (Martin Compston), a new boy in school newly arrived from Scotland, who writes poetry and wants to start a band. Dito and Mike begin dreaming together of heading West, and Dito drifts slowly away from his friends. This happens at the worst possible time, just as the community becomes increasingly more violent and dangerous to live in.

Dito’s small-minded, old-fashioned father is, of course, against the idea of leaving the neighborhood, to which goal he preaches traditional values of family and community loyalty.

Immature and with no role models to guide them, the boys are petty predators, harassing the girls, tormenting the store-owners and confronting their ethnic neighbors, whom they considered inferior in the social hierarchy. They channel their energies into street fights, battling Puerto Ricans and anyone they perceive as outsiders, or “more outsiders” than they are.

Not surprisingly, it’s an outsider, the Scottish student O’Shea, who urges Dito to follow his dream and move to California. Like most characters in such melodramas, Dito faces the dilemma of leaving home in order to live and live better or staying in that discomfort zone where he might wither if not die, as is the fate of one of his buddies.

As screenwriter, Dito Montiel doesn’t ask for sympathy or pity for his protags, just understanding, which he does with raw and often explosive dialogue. As first-time helmer, his direction is also raw and crude, but he captures the costs and rewards of living in a close-knit if also suffocating community.

The film’s performances are its best element, and indeed, the Dramatic Jury recognized the high-caliber ensemble acting with a special prize. Downey is effectively weary as the drained-out Dito, and as the paterfamilias in denial of his own health, Palminteri bursts with the kind of rage that befits his character. In small parts, Wiest excels as the submissive wife and loving mother, and Dawson manages to captures the vigor and stamina of a woman who refuses to be beaten down by her neighborhood.

Of the young actors, Shia LaBeouf is decent as the streetwise teenager, but it’s the conflicted and ultimately tragic Channing Tatum as Antonio, who gives the most strikingly performance, imbuing his role with the necessary anger and commitment.

The film boasts authenticity in recreating the tiny, shabby apartment in which Dito lives, the way the parents interact with each other, the way the kids behave on the streets, and so on. Problem is, the narrative is too episodic, due to the flashback structure, and too fractured, due to lack of technical skills in the cutting and editing departments.

The film’s later scenes, with Downey as the grown-up Dito, now a published author returning home to deal with his ailing father, aren’t as powerful, perhaps because they are overly familiar and also because we are more emotionally vested in the younger characters

Offering a view into a world that’s specific and distinctive, “A Guide” also shows the more general aspects of coming-of-age. The film’s shifting tone is right, mixing innocence and humor, anxiety and danger, in equal proportions, elements that make this 1980s Queens youth melodrama universal, regardless of when or where you grew up.

Cast

Young Dito: Shia LaBeouf; Older Dito: Robert Downey Jr.
Young Antonio: Channing Tatum; Older Antonio: Eric Roberts
Young Laurie: Melonie Diaz; Older Laurie: Rosario Dawson