Dito Montiel writes what he knows in his autobiographical and unkempt debut feature, “A Guide to Recognizing Your Saints.” Homing in on the sections in his 2003 memoir about his experiences growing up on the violent streets of Queens’ Astoria neighborhood, writer-director Montiel creates a movie of many parts that don’t always congeal. Mix this with the many meaty scenes and a roster of often exceptional actors and the effect is one of a fabulous acting showcase more than a wholly finished work. Specialty distribs will be clamoring for the rights, but wider sales abroad are far riskier.
Actor Richard E. Grant’s recent feature debut “Wah-Wah,” is a more realized work of film autobiography than “Guide.” But Montiel unmistakably writes from the heart, and allows his cast — most notably in the cases of Dianne Wiest, Chazz Palminteri, Martin Compston and newcomer Channing Tatum — considerable freedom to create roles that they own on screen.
Pic is rarely better than opening shot of a silently anguished Wiest as Dito’s mom Flori struggling to make a phone call asking her son to visit ailing dad Monty (Palminteri); a lifetime of pain registers on Wiest’s face. In present day, Dito (Robert Downey Jr.) is the successful author of the book of the pic’s title, and reads certain passages in voice-over that serve to bridge scenes.
Older Dito’s return home, after many years away, wraps around and through the main story set in the hot and muggy summer of 1986, when Dito (Shia LaBeouf) and his pals Antonio (Tatum), Giuseppe (Adam Scarimbolo) and Nerf (Peter Tambakis) kick around the Astoria streets. Monty respects Antonio as the oldest and toughest of the bunch, but unconditionally loves Dito, who displays both rowdy and softer sides, particularly around his savvy g.f. Laurie (Melonie Diaz). Graffiti attacks by local punks dubbed “The Reapers” trigger tit-for-tat hostilities that brings out Antonio’s vengeful side, with Dito caught in the middle.
Dito is still years away from developing his writing voice. But along with Laurie, newly arrived Scottish kid Mike (Compston) offers Dito a counterpoint to the brutalized world of Antonio; Mike writes poetry, and inspires Dito to consider forming a band with him. Dito is gradually forced to make life-changing choices.
The present-past interplay works effectively in the early passages, but as the 1986 story begins to dominate, Dito’s homecoming doesn’t so much buttress the tale as intrude upon it. Montiel and editor team Christopher Tellefsen and Jake Pushinsky labor with mixed results to make the time periods flow into each other, but it isn’t until Dito’s emotional clash with his bitter father, and then a heartbreaking time-out with his mother that a fuller sense of Dito’s personal journey is realized.
In lesser actors’ hands, several scenes would stop cold. Yet Tatum creates a powerful study of a self-destructive street guy trapped with no good options (with Eric Roberts in a virtual cameo as his older self). Wiest and Palminteri enliven standard domestic scenes — with Palminteri delivering his best perf in some time. Compston, a bit more grown-up since Ken Loach’s “Sweet Sixteen,” makes Mike’s so fascinating that Dito would credibly be drawn to him. Diaz’s intelligence turns potentially trite scenes involving Laurie into stories within the story.
If there’s a casting hiccup, it’s LaBeouf in effect playing a young Robert Downey Jr. Appearing more baby faced than streetwise, LaBeouf seems wrong for the role. Downey, in a morose key, beautifully expresses his author’s trepidations and concerns about returning home.
Location work in Queens is smashing, and Eric Gautier’s lensing is typically world class. Jonathan Elias’ moody synth-guitar score ultimately sounds like too many other dreamy minimalist soundtracks, and seems out of place for the ethnic-urban setting.