To quote an oft-mocked trailer for a recent action movie, never forget where you came from. It's a bit of sound advice that Dito Montiel seems to have taken to heart with the release of his book A Guide to Recognizing Your Saints. That is, until he returns home for the first time in 15 years.
Here we see the sick father whose love he rejected. We see the young lover he left behind. We see the friends he abandoned and the lives he forgot in his desperation to leave his inner city neighborhood. But most of all, we see the events that caused all of it, and how it was almost unavoidable, in this deeply personal Sundance film.
I call the film personal because it obviously is. Dito Montiel is the protagonist, writer, and director of this story of a man's struggle to make amends with those he abandoned. Normally this kind of thing gets in the way of the film's overall quality, due to an overly meticulous and caring filmmaker, but that's not the case here. Montiel, a first-time director, imbues his film with such raw emotion, almost perfectly capturing the struggles the audience is asked to relate to.
Every scene is electric, with anger, rage, and grief all flowing like electrons through a wire. Even more riveting is how it makes its way out. The actors and characters attempt to hide their feelings, and do a damn good job of it, until it violently erupts into the scene. Often these scenes are punctuated with sudden violence that helps urge it out. Perhaps the most effective, and heart-breaking, scenes are those confrontations between Dito and his father.
Director Montiel brings out the best in all his actors in this film, so not to lose any of his intended impact. Shia LaBeouf and Robert Downey, Jr. shine as the younger and older Montiel, respectively, though Downey doesn't have much to do until the very end of the film. Channing Tatum is even a credible actor in this film, coming off at first as the stereotypical tough guy, but fleshing out into a much more complex character. Perhaps Chazz Palminetri gives the best performance as the heartbroken father trying to look understand and care for his son. His scenes are truly the most remarkable.
As was said about Tatum's character Antonio, the same could be said about most of the characters. What comes off at first as stereotypes evolve into a much deeper dynamic by the end of the film. Most of it naturally comes from the strong writing and performances, but also from a handful of scenes that break the fourth wall, in which the characters speak to the viewer. Such scenes give great insight into each person, but at the same time disrupt the flow of the film. However, it's merely part of the charm of this indie flick.
On that note, A Guide to Recognizing Your Saints is a highly personal indie flick that mostly succeeds. It's a deep look into the life of an inner city boy, lovingly brought to us by a man that literally inhabited his shoes. For this reason, it could be somewhat difficult to relate to for some viewers. However, it's also a reminder of why you need to remember the ones you love, and the ones who love and care for you. It's a reminder to recognize your saints, so to speak. And if you're overtaken by this emotional roller coaster of a film as I was, it's one you won't soon forget.