A Guide to Recognizing Your Saints Review
by Alex Billington
September 29, 2006
A Guide to Recognizing Your Saints is a riveting story set in Astoria, Queens, New York. It's a recollection of one summer in Dito Montiel's (Shia LaBeouf) life as a teen and his return 20 years later (played by Robert Downey Jr.). Dito's days are spent largely in the company of his friends Nerf (Peter Anthony Tambakis), the shirtless and constantly bruised Antonio (Channing Tatum), Antonio's dim-witted brother Giuseppe (Adam Scarimbolo), and his Scottish best friend Mike (Martin Compston). Dito's girlfriend Laurie (Melonie Diaz) tries to keep him in line, but she often fails to do so when his friends all too often pull him away. Meanwhile, three outsiders stir up trouble by writing graffiti in Dito's neighborhood and by disrupting the social order that Dito and his friends have come to enjoy.
The events in A Guide to Recognizing Your Saints are based on true stories chronicled in Montiel's memoir of the same name. Montiel also wrote and directed this film. This provides a very personal and alarming insight into his life, given that he is providing both the creative and inspirational basis for the film. However this has a shortcoming in that the narrative does not expound enough on the other people from Dito's life. As much as it's a powerful story that Shia LaBeouf and Robert Downey Jr. deliver impeccably, it often doesn't extend the plot in the way I expected to really grasp and understand everything that Dito is experiencing.
A Guide to Recognizing Your Saints is really a story about family. Dito's father Monty (Chazz Palminteri) is one of the most strikingly realistic depictions of a father I have ever seen. His hidden love and enveloping control over his son drive the story's progression. In the end it comes down to how Dito's life was torn apart and whether his father really loved him or not. That theme is what hits dead on in Saints. It's rare to see a message as powerful and as gripping as this ever show up in movies and actually play out properly. Saints deserves praise for being one of the few movies to show an entertaining story about a young boy's life and in the end deliver a message this incredible.
The problem with Saints lies largely in its editing. There was too much of each little scene missing. The editing was jerky and disjointed, leaving plenty of holes and lots of confusion. This most likely lies in the fact that Dito Montiel not only wrote but also directed the film; a problem given Montiel has never written nor directed a feature film before. There is a scene near the end where Laurie talks to Dito about becoming the man that he still isn't and confronting his dad. This would have been the eye-opening, climatic moment that moviegoers relish, but the scene ended too soon and did not allow for the emotion to blossom into what it could have been.
Saints's acting is beyond compare. Every character feels real, from Dito's group of friends to the three girls, Laurie (Melonie Diaz), Jenny (Eleonore Hendricks) and Diane (Julia Garro) that are always hanging out in their crowd, and to Dito's gay friend for whom he walked dogs. It felt like I could take a walk around Astoria and see the same people there in real life. That realism through the acting made Saints that much more compelling. Shia LaBeouf and Channing Tatum deliver incredible performances - some of the best of the year as well as the best in their respective careers. Tatum is notably so realistic, that even the audience is afraid of him when he gets angry. Saints has been met with high expectations as a film, and it delivers on most but not all of them.
A Guide to Recognizing Your Saints had all the makings of a great film but they don't quite fall into place. The message the film delivers and the actors who deliver it make Saints worth every minute, but it's still a rough ride through the story and the editing to the end. Dito Montiel's inspiration and directing proves to be just a bit problematic but in the end truly encompassing. A Guide to Recognizing Your Saints isn't the absolute best movie out this year, but it has a powerful message and features intensely realistic acting that no recent film has been able to match.