Coming-of-age yarns come around with enough regularity to reflect the comfortable, nostalgic portraits of youth they usually represent. And while our quirky/lovable/colorful cast of characters must often learn a lesson the hard way or cope with their first major tragedy, we can still count on these pics, with the familiarity and reliability of childhood, to be harmless enough. Even the best and the most beloved coming-of-age films (The Sandlot and Stand by Me come to mind) stop well short of the loss of innocence for its characters.
But every so often, a film crashes the party at the kids’ table, eschewing suburban idealism for inner-city realism and replacing nostalgia with documentary-style objectivity. Kids was one of those films; so was The Basketball Diaries. A Guide to Recognizing Your Saints, the film debut of writer-director Dito Montiel and based on his memoir of the same name, is also one of those movies. The title comes from Dito’s retrospective conclusion that, in escaping the same fate as his childhood friends in Queens, many of whom are dead or in jail, he must have been somehow protected by divine forces. Guide is unique in that it crystallizes that post-innocence, pre-real-world-responsibility age between the ‘teens and young adulthood when your actions are just beginning to have real consequences–a point of view that, no doubt due to its complexity, is often overlooked in films. In the mid-eighties, Dito (Shia LeBeouf as a teen, Robert Downey, Jr. as an adult) and his friends still operate under the notion that they’re invincible, and they move through their Astoria neighborhood accordingly, cursing, fighting, drinking, smoking, screwing, and engaging in assorted forms of property destruction without fear of repercussion.
Dito’s crew is led by his best friend, the headstrong, fearless, and insecure Antonio (relative newcomer Channing Tatum, who is tormented and explosive in the film’s finest performance), who avoids being his father’s punching bag by spending as much time as possible on the streets and at Dito’s house. Antonio, who appears with a fresh wound each time we see him, develops a special bond with Dito’s father Monty (Chazz Palminteri), who he considers the father figure willing to provide the approval he seeks. The fatherly affection reciprocated by Monty is enough to spite Dito, who begins to push both of them away. Complicating matters for Dito are a fued with a neighborhood vandal, Reaper, who causes him to fear for his life, and his new friendship with Mike, a Scottish immigrant who introduces him to a world outside of his increasingly claustrophobic Queens bubble. Dito is suffocating and growing desperate for a way out.
Guide’s parallel storyline follows the present-day Dito as he returns to Astoria for the first time since he ran away nearly twenty years ago to visit Monty, whose health is failing. Fortunately, these scenes account for just a fraction of the screen time (despite top billing for Downey and Rosario Dawson), as they lack the energy, passion and feverish electricity that buzzes through the flashbacks. It doesn’t help that the grown-up characters, with the exception of Dawson’s, look and sound almost nothing like their teenage counterparts (honestly, does anyone think Shia LeBeouf will grow up to look like Downey?); this blunder causes what should have been one of the film’s most important scenes, Dito and Antonio’s climactic reunion, to flop with a thud.
Montiel’s greatest success in the film is capturing an authenticity and rawness from his young cast that makes for some of the most convincing teenage drama in recent years. There are no pretensions in Guide about what real kids do or say, and the ensemble, especially the visibly conflicted Tatum, is a joy to watch. Almost none of them are entirely likable; but each one of them is entirely believable. Montiel’s free-flowing, unconventional style is fitting for the spontaneous lives of his teens; it has a non-linear plot line, characters address the camera, passages from his book are narrated over corresponding scenes, and text from the script occasionally appears onscreen. The film might have benefited from eliminating the present-day bookends, which, compared to the engaging flashbacks, almost have a “who cares?” quality to them. See this film for the performances and the dramatic tension in the ’80s, but have a remote ready to skip past the rest.