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A Guide to Recognizing Your Saints

Growing Up Is Hard to Do

This earnest fictionalized memoir is an intense look at the violence, sexuality and pettiness of a group of adolescent friends growing up in Queens, New York in the 80s. Think Larry Clark's Kids but set in the boroughs. Like that film A Guide to Recognizing Your Saints also has a realistic feel. However, unlike it, it is decidedly self-indulgent.

Dito Montiel, on whose life the movie is based, is also both the screenwriter and the director. This, of course, creates conflict as it is obvious from early on that the material is too close to the source. Robert Downey Jr. plays the grown Dito, a reclusive writer in Los Angeles, who is compelled by the pleas of his family and friends to return back to New York in order to take care of his gravely ill father. During his trip back home he reminisces about his past, which is told through a series of long flashbacks.

Shia LaBeouf, a great, largely unrecognized talent, plays the young Dito who, along with friends Nerf and Giuseppe, follow around their aggressive and zealous leader-of-the-pack Antonio (Channing Tatum). Like any other group of teenaged boys, they chase around girls, get into fights, party and try to court trouble. However, when a new kid, Mike, from Scotland arrives, Dito realizes that there's more to life.

Montiel wields wonderful skill in directing group dynamics, especially street kids. He captures their raw, unfocussed energy and rage; it is almost palpable. Likewise, the scenes with Dito and his family -- Chaz Palminteri as Dito's repairman father and Dianne Wiest as his doting mother -- are spot on. As a writer, Montiel has a knack for dialogue. This, of course, could be because the movie is essentially about himself. While this fact makes the movie intimate and personal, it also holds it back. There are just too many directorial elements, as if Montiel had so much he needed to say that he simply poured it all into this little film. As a result, there are moments when it dissolves into a post-modern, meta mess.

Nonetheless, the actors run with it. LeBeouf and Palminteri are excellent, as is most of the cast. However the adult versions of the characters are less riveting than their more youthful counterparts. All in all, A Guide to Recognizing Your Saints is a captivating look at a slice of life from one man's journey.

Rating: 3 out of 5 stars