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A Guide to Recognizing Your Saints

(2006) *** R
98 min. First Look Pictures. Directors: Dito Montiel, Anthony Ripoli. Cast: Robert Downey Jr., Shia LaBeouf, Chazz Palminteri, Dianne Wiest, Rosario Dawson.

A Guide to Recognizing Your Saints, written and directed from his own memoir by Dito Montiel, cannot help but be self-conscious. But it's also a sincere examination of the moment, on the cusp of adulthood, when children must decide whether to get out of the only life they've known or honor it by staying home.

Shia LaBeouf and Robert Downey Jr. play the teen and adult Dito, both dealing with a mercurial father and his illness. In the present, Downey finds himself haunted by his formative years, but most of the film unfolds in 1986 Queens, where Dito tangles with Puerto Rican graffiti artists, tentatively romances his girlfriend, and deals with the drama of his street-tough buddies. Channing Tatum makes a strong impression as Antonio, the most volatile of the group; Chazz Palminteri and Dianne Weist play Dito's achingly loving parents; and Rosario Dawson turns up as Dito's grown-up girlfriend. The ensemble deservedly shared an award at Sundance.

Montiel evinces a psychological astuteness about men who are their own worst enemies, from the father ever discouraging his son from leaving home to the circle of teen bravado ever tamping down its fears of true emotion. The new kid in town, transplanted Scotsboy Mike O'Shea (Martin Compston of Sweet Sixteen), feeds Dito's like mind; their passionate dreams of making a mark threaten the group's jocular determination to freeze its adolescence.

Shot on location in a loose, dingy style redolent of Larry Clark, Saints balances its exaggerations of Montiel's real life with a visceral and emotional authenticity. Stuttered editing and overlapping dialogue approximate the messiness of memory, and the writer-director valiantly resists conventional character arcs before succumbing to third act wallops. The whole thing winds up diffuse and wispy—and seems as if it may be this pony's one trick—but A Guide to Recognizing Your Saints is likeable all the same: in a color-corrected world, dingy, gritty conviction goes a long way.

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