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By Don R. Lewis | September 27, 2006

Dito Montiel’s “A Guide to Recognizing Your Saints” starts off with Robert Downey Jr. playing the films writer/director (and also the author of the book the film is based on) Dito Montiel. He’s onstage in L.A. at a book reading. From there, Dito leads us into a film that seems like any other tough guy period piece. Local ruffians roll through the streets wreaking havoc like wild animals marking their territory. Lots of face smacking and “Whatsamatter-you” type talk. The period in question here is the mid-eighties and the place is Astoria, Queens. Immediately films like “The Basketball Diaries” or the first part of “Once Upon a Time in America” come to mind. But “A Guide to Recognizing Your Saints” isn’t really like either of those films once it gets going.

Here, the teenagers are total losers. They aren’t doing deeds for a mob boss or looking to score smack. They beat each other up and beat up anyone else along the way with no rhyme or reason aside from some kind of turf or buddy protection excuse. Shia LaBeouf plays young Dito and already he seems slightly more mellow than his counterparts Antonio and Nerf. Monty, Dito’s father seems trapped in Astoria and sure as hell doesn’t want to be left alone there. He keeps a tight leash on Dito and Antonio and he have a tight bond. It’s as if Antonio is his own son. In what becomes a series of flashes from current times back to the eighties, the adult Dito gets a call from Nerf telling him his father is sick.

From there we learn all about the late teenage years of Dito Montiel and it’s an engrossing tale. Themes of feeling trapped and not being allowed to be who you want to be eveolve as Dito strikes up a friendship with a new kid in school, a Scottish immigrant named Mike. Mike gets Dito to think about life outside Astoria as they wander New York on the subway. Dito’s mind expands daily as he visits exotic locales he’s never been to like Manhattan and Coney Island. The more Dito explores and grows, the more Monty and Antonio want to keep Dito in Astoria and conflicts ensue.

“A Guide to Recognizing Your Saints” is a great film. It’s all true as Dito reminds us throughout the film. It’s the truthfulness to the time and the characters that elevate the film to something far above a cliche. We feel like we’re in Queens in 1986, and it’s not fun. It’s a living hell. For a first time director, Montiel shows he has some fresh chops as he builds tension in both the present storyline and the past one. Both coalesce nicely into emotional and physical explosions. For as violent as this film is, it also has a tender side as we see Dito aspiring to escape his home and later, trying to cope with the world he’s left behind. There’s an awesome “roll call” scene where each character in the film steps forward, says their name and gives their character flaw. It’s touching and really crystalizes each character.

Downey Jr. and LaBeouf as Dito as well as Chazz Palminteri as Monty are outstanding. Channing Tatum (who I’ve never heard of) is also amazing as the tortured soul Antonio. About three quarters of the way through “A Guide to Recognizing Your Saints” I started to hope it might never end. But with such a tight screenplay and competant direction, the end was inevitable. However Montiel doesn’t spell everything out for you because I’m sure he hasn’t totally reconciled in real life. But it’s the heart and honesty throughout the film that make it unforgettable.

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