I'm of two minds about A Guide to Recognizing Your Saints, a new dramatic film written and directed by Dito Montiel and written from his own memoirs of growing up in Astoria, Queens during the mid-80s. Parts of it are engaging, thoughtful and affecting, from the first-rate cast (headlined by Robert Downey, Jr. and Shia LaBeouf as different ages of Montiel) to Montiel's skill in demonstrating through visuals and dialogue how what we're watching is not necessarily the past as it happened but as Dito remembers it. At the same time, it's hard to be too engaged by the adolescent struggles of Dito and his friends Nerf, Guiseppe, Mick and Antonio as they drift aimlessly through a humid swamp of testosterone and ignorance.
In the present day, Dito's a writer, living in Los Angeles, far from New York. But a call from his mother Flori (Dianne Wiest) imploring Dito to come home to see his ill father Monty (Chazz Palminteri) puts Dito on the next plane to New York … and onto the on-ramp for memory lane. Dito (played in the past by LaBeouf) is spending a sweltering summer in Queens hanging out with his pals. He has the possibility of pleasure in a romance with neighborhood girl Laurie (Melonie Diaz) and the possibility of danger as a local graffiti war heats up. … All the actors here are fine, including the uncredited notable names who play the older versions of Laurie and Antonio. But Montiel's script – adapted from his own memoir – often lets itself slump into easy scenes of shouting and semi-articulate rage as Dito and his friends and family confront, confuse and confound each other. Dito tells his father how he wants to leave Queens, see the world, do something, anything new: Monty's only response is "You aren't going anywhere, Dito." It's meant as a comfort, but it's also a curse; Palminteri can make it sound like both.
A Guide to Recognizing Your Saints is another entry in the 'growing up in New York' sub-genre of drama, after The Basketball Diaries and A Bronx Tale; it's hard see what, if anything, A Guide to Recognizing Your Saints has to offer that's new. I cant help but think that A Guide to Recognizing Your Saints is another example of how a memoir might have benefited if the person who lived the life wasn't the person who brought it to the screen – a slight amount of distance between the events depicted in the film and the challenge of depicting them on screen might have benefited the movie as a whole.
Others on A Guide to Recognizing Your Saints: Duane Byrge of The Hollywood Reporter was decidedly unimpressed, concluding that "the crudeness and venality of the central characters proves as stifling as the incessant Queens summer heat does to our dubious protagonists."