27 February 2007 | gradyharp
One of the True Sleepers of the Year
A GUIDE TO RECOGNIZING YOUR SAINTS may not be on everyone's list of great films of 2006 but it most assuredly should be. In a time when the bulk of films that come across the marquis are empty headed fluff (with of course notable exceptions), little films like this autobiographical coming of age story in Queens in the 1980s by the accomplished yet very humble Dito Montiel make an initial impact on the viewer, then hang around the psyche with memories of cinematic moments as well as fresh looks at our own lives like few other films can achieve.
Dito Montiel wrote his memoir, adapted it for the screen and directed it, each step being a first one for this very talented young man. His story on the surface is simple: a childhood and coming of age of Dito and his friends as they face the crime and drugs and love affairs and deaths of living in the line of poverty. Dito (an astonishingly fine Shia LaBeouf) has a cadre of friends that include Scottish Mike (Martin Compston), crazy Nerf (Peter Anthony Tambakis), firebrand Antonio (Channing Tatum in yet another fiery and sensitive performance), Antonio's unfortunate brother Giuseppe (Adam Scarimbolo), and girls Laurie (Melonie Diaz) and Diane (Julia Garro). The boys face gang trouble with the Puerto Rican gang Reapers, parental abuse as in Antonio's father (Federico Castelluccio), parental love as with Dito's parents Monty (Chazz Palminteri) and Flori (Dianne Wiest).
As their world in Queens comes tumbling down with tragic consequences Dito decides to leave for California. And leave he does, not returning for twenty years to the place where he successfully survived a childhood due to the 'saints' he didn't recognize until the father with whom he has not communicated in the interim has reached his end. The past and the present are woven together throughout the film with the flash forward, flash back sequences: the older successful writer Dito is played by Robert Downey, Jr.; Antonio (imprisoned for his beating death of the head of the Reapers) is Eric Roberts; Laurie now married is Rosario Dawson; Nerf now is Scott Michael Campbell: and Dito's parents remain makeup-aged Palminteri and Wiest. It is this blend of the past as revealed by the present that makes Montiel's film work so well. They manner in which he creates the magic of near extemporaneous speech with this amazing cast creates a sense of grit, verismo, and profound love and loss. Conversations such as the ones between little Dito and Monty, between the mature Dito and Flori and Lauri and Antonio - all are minor miracles of writing and acting. Montiel may be a first time director but he has drawn some of the finest work ever from Palminteri, Wiest, Downey, Dawson, Tatum, Roberts and LaBoeuf.
For those who have read Montiel's book by the same name, the time Dito spent in East Village and his fame as a Calvin Klein underwear model will seem painfully missing. But Montiel has extracted the essence of a boy growing out of his environment with the help of his unknown saints, condensed the action, and told the story in a magical way - a way that is sure to drive into the gut and heart of every sensitive viewer. Highly Recommended. Grady Harp