Theatrical Review: Dito Montiel
grew up in an ungentrified Astoria, Queens, in the '80s, running with semi-hoodlums and raising misdemeanor-sized hell. But unlike a lot of teenage thugs-in-training, Montiel escaped his neighborhood to become a writer. His book A Guide to Recognizing Your Saints, unread by me, chronicles his roughneck coming of age; now he has written and directed a film version of the same name. A Guide to Recognizing Your Saints has become Montiel's indie-flavored brand; I look forward to his self-drawn Saints comic book, or maybe a line of handcrafted rough-and-tumble action figures and Astoria playset.
Judging solely from his film, Montiel can actually write, at least as far as authentic dialogue goes. His characters hem and haw and shout at each other, profanities overlapping and cascading yet going nowhere. The scenes of young Dito (Shia LaBeouf
), his family, and his friends crammed into his kitchen can be wearying, but also show an expert knowledge of the way the ruts of people's lives can create a jocular yet maddening hardheadedness. Article continues below
As a teenager, Dito stands slightly apart from the chatter, scuffles, and general BS around him. His familiarity with this world is clear, but he isn't as satisfied with a life of thuggery as his squinting, frequently shirtless friend Antonio (budding teen star Channing Tatum
, who looks sort of like Josh Hartnett
halfway through a special-effects morph into the Incredible Hulk
), who bases his life around looking for scores to settle.
Sometimes it seems like Dito's father Monty -- played by Chazz Paliminteri
, trading his usual gangster menace for a heartbreaking fragility of body and spirit -- likes Antonio more than his son does. Antonio is comforting to the father because he represents a complete lack of interest in ever leaving the neighborhood. That the guy is also a criminal in waiting -- coarse, abused, frustrated, vengeful -- matters little in the face of his hardscrabble loyalty. Tatum is vivid as this tragic jackass, though it's hard to tell if the actor's range extends beyond wounded brutes.
The film cuts between the coming-of-age stuff and Dito as an adult, now played by Robert Downey Jr.
, returning to Astoria for the first time in years to visit his sick father. It's up to these threads to contextualize and illuminate the engaging (if a little generic) childhood flashbacks. Instead, they cast a haze over the whole movie, a floating cloud of vague therapy for the writer-director-novelist-musician. The gifted Downey, a sleazy American's Johnny Depp
, makes the most of his screentime, but only so much can be done with scenes that alternate between minimalist alienation and, later, the kind of heavy melodramatics that make a lot more sense in the summer of his character's youth. The audience is left with plenty of time to fidget and wonder how a cute girl from the neighborhood, now grown-up, looks more like Rosario Dawson
Broader questions than that plague this likable, well-acted film, such as: Why? Why is this a movie, when it almost certainly works better as a novel with more time for all of its characters and atmosphere? The reasons Montiel tries to present in the film's final act feel like fumbling excuses, not reasons for being. I would've been happy, for example, to have been taught how to recognize my saints -- a concept that (not unlike "trainspotting") seems to have been left on the page. That kind of clarity never comes, and I left thinking Montiel might have given himself closure at the expense of the audience.