By Steven Snyder
It’s what goes unsaid that speaks volumes in “A Guide To Recognizing Your Saints,” an unsentimental movie that avoids the sappy pitfalls of most memoirs. The result is a film that focuses on one man’s experience growing up on the violent streets of Astoria, but says something bigger about the way we all run away from home, only to find ourselves racing back.
Based on his popular 2003 memoir, director Dito Montiel uses this movie much as he used his book, as a way to try and reconcile who he is now with who he once was. In the present, Montiel is played by Robert Downey Jr., in an intense yet understated portrayal of a man who has attempted to bury the pain of his past. On tour with his memoir, Montiel (Downey Jr.) talks about the characters of his childhood, and as he speaks the camera cuts away, introducing us to the saints.
There’s Laurie (Rosario Dawson), the girl who lives above the deli on the corner, yelling down to Dito, who’s clearly falling in love with her. There’s Dito’s strong-willed father, Monty (Chazz Palminteri), who cracks jokes while sitting at the family’s kitchen table, but who seems to do everything possible to avoid discussing the dangerous streets that are eroding just outside the apartment.
And then there’s Antonio (Channing Tatum), a boy Monty welcomes into the family as one of his own. It’s obvious that Antonio is being abused at home, and that Monty is trying to reach out to this kid in need, encouraging his son to be this boy’s friend. But slowly Dito realizes that Antonio is a hot-headed, intensely violent and unapologetic person. When an act of vandalism in the neighborhood escalates into an act of violence, Antonio grabs a baseball bat and takes matters into his own hands, lashing out in a way that leads to a friend’s death, and Dito’s decision to run away from home.
On a larger scale, this is the story of one man’s decision to save his life by abandoning his parents, who are too blinded by love and naivete to see the realities of this hopeless neighborhood. But it’s never a story that claims to be this bold or monumental, turning instead to the understated dramas and triumphs of our lives that make “Saints” an epic of everyday dimensions. Assembled essentially as a snapshot of a teenager’s day-to-day life, “Saints” is fair with its characters and the way their struggles tear at their hearts, depicting Dito’s final decision as his only real option.
In one scene, Dito rides the subway with another student, killing the hours by looking out the window and imagining his escape from his neighborhood. In another, he finds a moment’s peace with Laurie in the local pool until Antonio comes thundering in, telling Dito it’s time to go to war.
It’s the small details that illuminate a life, and in “Saints,” these details speak louder than anything the characters say. When Dito, now all grown up, returns home to see his ailing father, it’s the looks in their eyes a heartbroken father and a terrified son which cut through the silence and distill the larger themes that anyone can relate to. Quite literally, Dito is confronting this chasm with his past, trying desperately to build a bridge back to that place he fled from.
So is this is a New York story? Yes. Is it a movie that seems sampled from the Scorsese playbook, about a band of tough-talking New Yorkers trying to survive the mean streets? Sure. But when a grown-up Laurie points at Dito’s face, screaming at him to grow up, go home and take care of his father, “Saints” becomes a movie about the nature of time, and how we must confront our past to build our future.