A love letter to a bygone era of New York City, namely the late ‘80s, “Ten Thousand Saints” sees directing duo Shari Springer Berman and Robert Pulcini returning to a more personal approach to filmmaking — or at least as personal as possible when adapting another’s material, in this case the debut novel by author Eleanor Henderson. Part teen romance, part awkward love triangle, part generational-clash portrait, and almost all powered by nostalgia, this warmly conceived dramedy will likely resonate strongest with audiences who have a direct connection to the story’s place and time. Otherwise, there’s not much to suggest a theatrical windfall, and only slightly better odds in ancillary.
The story actually kicks off in 1980 Vermont, on a particularly eventful night for young hero Jude (Henry Kelemen). He’s hit with a double whammy: His no-nonsense mom, Harriet (Julianne Nicholson), has kicked his hippie dad, Les (Ethan Hawke), out of the house for knocking up her friend. As he bids farewell, Les casually reveals Jude was adopted.
Fast forward several years and Jude (now played by Asa Butterfield) has grown into a surly teen with a wisp of hair permanently obscuring his face and a now-longstanding loathing of his father, who relocated to New York. Jude makes plans with pal Teddy (Avan Jogia) to get high on New Year’s Eve, but Les manages to irritate Jude from afar by sending Eliza (Hailee Steinfeld), the rebellious teen daughter of his current flame, Diane (Emily Mortimer), into town.
Jude doesn’t want to play tour guide for Eliza, mostly because she reminds him of Les, but Teddy happily tags along with the wild child, who flirts with strangers and snorts coke in the bathroom. She also winds up deflowering him, a development that proves pivotal when Teddy and Jude pass out later that night outside in the freezing cold and Teddy never wakes up.
Teddy’s death sets into motion a series of changes and ultimately unites Jude, Eliza and Teddy’s older half-brother, Johnny (Emile Hirsch), the straight-edge lead singer of a hardcore punk band, in the Big Apple. Eliza discovers she’s pregnant, Johnny offers to help her take care of the baby, Jude slowly reconnects with his dad, and everything culminates in the 1988 riots at Tompkins Square Park.
Both native New Yorkers, Springer Berman and Pulcini are on their fourth pic set in the city (following “The Nanny Diaries,” “The Extra Man” and “Girl Most Likely”), and here come closest to finding a cast of characters as intriguing as those in their Cleveland-set breakout, “American Splendor,” though they still fall considerably short of that high mark.
What “Ten Thousand Saints” does is capture New York at a moment of change, running parallel to the rise of AIDS, the yuppie invasion and gentrification, and exploring a shift in the counterculture through Jude (named after the Beatles song), who finds a way to rebel against his laid-back, pot-dealing dad in the straight-edge movement (no drugs, no alcohol, no promiscuity).
Rising young stars Butterfield and Steinfeld are light years away from their previous collaboration in “Ender’s Game,” going back in time to a not-so-distant past (before they were born) to capably convey those universal coming-of-age feelings of rebellion, uncertainty and self-discovery. The more mature members of the ensemble go to town with broader characters that, while never quite fully developed, never feel like caricatures, either. Hawke is the clear standout as thoroughly unreliable Les, who keeps disappointing the women and children in his life, but nevertheless comes through when he’s needed most.
When Jude remarks in the last act that a newborn baby will be a “completely different person in 10 years,” it’s hard not to long for the weight of “Boyhood” in Les’ response, “So will you.” As ne’er-do-well father figures go, Les is hardly a patch on Hawke’s Mason Sr. in Richard Linklater’s coming-of-age landmark, but if “Ten Thousand Saints” is the first of the actor’s films to suffer from the comparison, it surely won’t be the last.
Tech package is pro, although Ben Kutchins’ muted color palette tends to accentuate the drabness of the film’s low-wattage action. Production designer Stephen Beatrice and costume designer Suttirat Anne Larlarb do admirable work re-creating the late ’80s on a low budget. Music supervisor Linda Cohen packs the pic with familiar and less exposed tunes from the likes of the Replacements, the Feelies, the Cure, R.E.M. and Sting (whose wife, Trudie Styler, perhaps not coincidentally is one of the producers).