My experience of A Guide to Recognizing Your Saints was affected—I would say enhanced—by the knowledge that it is based on a memoir, that in it the filmmaker (author and punk rocker Dito Montiel) is revealing his intense emotions about his own life.
My guess is that’s not supposed to matter, that as art it should be totally irrelevant if this is true or false, that I should feel exactly the same about it if I discovered later that I had misunderstood and that in fact the movie’s totally fictional.
But I just felt more connected with it knowing that I was watching someone recreating his past, using his moviemaking as a kind of therapy to understand himself and where he came from better. The movie has a very raw, realistic edge to it already, and knowing it’s based on the filmmaker’s actual childhood just makes it feel even more urgent and real to me.
The bulk of the movie takes place in flashbacks in Queens in the 1980s (though strangely, most or all of the music they’re listening to and the TV show themes seem to be from the ’70s—e.g., Gerry Rafferty’s “Baker Street,” Welcome Back Kotter, etc.), where we learn about the “mean streets” life of the teenage Dito and his family and friends. Then in the present, the grown Dito, having achieved some success as a writer in California, returns to the old neighborhood with great trepidation after being estranged from his family for fifteen years.
As far as its being a true or semi-true story by the way, I read later that Montiel used the real names of the people he grew up with for composite characters based on more than just the real people with those names, and depicted them in events that mostly never happened but were roughly like the sorts of things they did in real life. The teenage girl the Dito character was dating, for instance, died of AIDS in real life shortly before his return, whereas she grows up to be Rosario Dawson (insert wolf whistle and various crude, animalistic grunts of approval here) in the movie.
One thing that gives the movie a certain gravity is that when Dito returns as an adult (now played by Robert Downey, Jr.), he looks so pensive and uncomfortable. Maybe some will say it’s hokey and overdone, but the way he glides from scene to scene watching everything with a tense wariness, responding carefully and monosyllabically, conveyed to me what a strongly emotional experience his return is.
The whole movie does a fine job capturing the duality of how he sees his childhood as both a traumatic period filled with loser people who hurt each other intentionally and unintentionally that he was right to escape from and never look back, and a period of genuine connection with flawed people who in their own way loved him and he loved back that maybe he should have never turned his back on.
This is most vividly captured in Dito’s relationship with his father (a solid, fascinating performance by Chazz Palminteri). Dito desperately wants a close, loving relationship with his father, but also needs to play the role of the defiant, snarly adolescent. His father intermittently shows a clear warmth and love for his son, combined with an authoritarian streak and flashes of temper. They’re always dancing right along the edge of a breakthrough and genuine communication, but can never seem to get there.
Maybe the most powerful scene in the movie is when Dito is distraught over the shooting of his friend, and his father is awkwardly trying to comfort him. It’s what Dito needs in a sense, but he’s angry and every advance by his father is hitting him just wrong on a visceral level and making him more angry and unreceptive.
This leads to a sequence where the father goes back and forth, back and forth, trying to embrace his son and lambasting him for refusing to acknowledge his authority. It’s taken to an unrealistic degree for effect, but it actually works. The frustration on both sides, especially from the father, is palpable.
One thing that struck me—and I don’t know how accurate this is—is how these kids are so out of control. For instance in the building where some of them live, they harass other tenants, throw beer bottles at people that shatter against the wall, openly defecate in the elevator, etc., just laughing and letting off steam. And no one seems to care. The super or whatever in the lobby (who looks like he’s behind bulletproof glass) will give them an occasional “Knock it off you punks or I’ll call the cops!” kind of thing, but they just dismiss him and nothing happens. It feels like people have given up doing anything about the youths of this neighborhood, beyond maybe hoping they stick to graffiti and petty vandalism and such instead of more serious crimes.
Some characters and some scenes didn’t fit all that well to me; I wasn’t clear exactly what their purpose is in the movie. But that’s another area where perhaps it matters that this is based on real people and events. As a story maybe not everything hangs together perfectly, but maybe the “point” to all of this is just that it’s what stuck with Montiel most vividly from his childhood, and he knows experiencing it is what made him who he became, as it inspired him and damaged him at a deep level in equal measure. And so somehow it all belongs here.
Overall A Guide to Recognizing Your Saints is one of the better, more realistic “coming of age in a tough ethnic neighborhood” films I’ve seen. Not everything works perfectly—some of it just feels too familiar because there are so many movies like this, and there’s a brief surreal section in the middle where some of the characters introduce themselves and talk directly to the camera for a sentence or two that seems pointless and out of place—but in general it’s a solid effort with some emotional depth to it.
I would even consider picking up the book it’s based on, as I felt a definite connection with the filmmaker and what he was trying to do here to honestly dig inside himself and his past.