How to recognize your saints while bumming around Queens

Writer-director Dito Montiel has an eclectic artistic background that includes music and writing, and perhaps this range of experiences gave him the confidence to make an excellent debut film. “A Guide to Recognizing Your Saints”, Montiel’s account of teenage life in Queens is adapted from his memoir of the same name. The film somewhat follows in the tradition of other New York City dramas such as “Do the Right Thing” and “Mean Streets”, and like Scorsese and Spike Lee, Montiel exudes confidence in his filmmaking. By creatively using sound bridges, editing with flair and directing a terrific ensemble cast, Montiel has created a compelling film that brims with the life of its sometimes brutal urban setting.

While most of the film is told in flashback, the story begins when Dito (the reliably excellent Robert Downey Jr.) is summoned back home to take care of his sick father (Chazz Palminteri). As he arrives back home, Dito begins remembering the last summer he spent at home and the events that drove him to leave Queens. That summer, young Dito (Shia LaBeouf) is torn between his crew of friends who spend their days bumming around the city, interacting, often violently, with others and the chance to escape Queens with his new friend Mike (Martin Compston), a transfer student from Scotland. Despite the pleading of his father and the loyalty of his best friend Antonio (Channing Tatum), violent events push Dito to leave behind everything and everyone he’s ever known.

The film’s strength is that it never foregrounds the violence that is part of daily life in Queens but always stays focused on the characters. At one point in the film, each of the teenage characters looks into the camera and briefly describes him/herself. Antonio, who suffers physical abuse at the hands of his father, describes himself as “worthless” and Dito says he will leave everyone by the end of the film. The episode works as a mini-confessional, a chance for each character to reveal something about themselves and captures what Montiel is trying to accomplish with this story. The film is not about its setting-although the Queens neighborhood is practically its own character – but about a man’s memories about what his life was like growing up. It’s not about the violence Dito’s friends often perpetrate, but about the love they feel for him and the disappointment that his departure causes.

At Sundance, “A Guide to Recognizing Your Saints” deservedly won the Best Ensemble Performance award. Each cast member gives a great performances but the heart of the film is split between Chazz Palminteri and Channing Tatum. Tatum shows the heart in Antonio, a character many other actors would play as a mindless thug, and Palminteri communicates a range of emotions as the father who tries to help Antonio and then is devastated when his own son decides to leave town. Complemented by a fantastic soundtrack of classic rock, the film is a confident directorial debut by a director who will be heard from in the future.

Kevin Craft can be contacted at