The Dito Diaries
"A Guide to Recognizing Your Saints" was written and directed by Dito Montiel, it is about him, growing up on the rough streets of Astoria, N.Y. during the 80s, his leaving and then his return 15 years later when he learns his father is sick. It is a movie with the feel of "Sleepers" mixed with the aggression of "The Basketball Diaries" and done with plenty of style. And technically "A Guide to Recognizing Your Saints" is a good movie, taking you through the past to explain why Dito left and why his return is so hard.
But here is the thing "A Guide to Recognizing Your Saints" is a personal movie, it is Dito's story laid bare on screen, it is his memories, his experiences and his ghosts which make up this drama. Now if you can connect to any of this, the growing up in Astoria during the 80s, the desperate feeling of need to get out and the fear of returning to memories left behind then I am sure you will love this movie. But if you can't, if you didn't grow up in a similar place or dealt with a similar troubled past you are left as an observer watching someone else's story but having no connection to anything which happens.
Unfortunately I am one of these people as whilst my teen years were in the 80s they were not similar to Dito's and so I am left as an observer looking into someone else's past and feeling no emotional connection to it. And it is a shame as from a technical point of view the story works; we watch as young Dito (Shia LeBeouf) is different to those around him, different to his tough friend Antonio (Channing Tatum) and not like his father Morty (Chazz Palminteri). And so we can understand that in a way Dito is growing up sooner than those around him and wanting more than what he sees tries to improve be it making new friends, working to get money or planning to move to California. Even when you can't connect with how young Dito feels you can understand him.
It is the same as we watch the old Dito (Robert Downey Jr.) who reluctantly returns back to Astoria 15 years after he fled, forced to confront ghosts and hurt he had tried to leave behind. You may not empathise with the grown up Dito but you can understand why it is hard for him to return especially to see his father again.
The irony of "A Guide to Recognizing Your Saints" is that alongside Dito we have a lot of characters and to be honest there is not a single nice guy in the movie. Now this may be real but it also makes it hard to connect, we need someone to champion and whilst we can appreciated the young Dito's inner conflict over loyalty and improvement it is hard to get behind him. Having said that there is not a bad performance in the entire movie and the then hot young talent such as Shia LaBeouf, Channing Tatum and Melonie Diaz who play the younger versions of characters do a grand job. But then so do the actors such as Robert Downey Jr., Eric Roberts, Rosario Dawson, Chazz Palminteri and Dianne Wiest who play the older versions and characters.
What this all boils down to is that technically "A Guide to Recognizing Your Saints" is a very good movie, it has good styling, good performances and a storyline which is well worked out and you can understand it. But then it is a very personal movie all about writer and director's Dito Montiel own coming of age and unless you can connect with his story you are left on the outside.