The contest between one’s desire to flee home and the inextinguishable attraction to the formative people and places of one’s youth forms the crux of A Guide to Recognizing Your Saints, Dito Montiel’s adaptation of his own 2003 autobiography about growing up in Astoria, Queens. More troublesome conflict exists, however, between the film’s present and past-tense action, as Montiel’s screenplay never properly meshes its dual narrative strands and, accordingly, never manages to fully mold its various thematic concerns into a unified whole. Traveling back home after a 15-year absence to visit his dying father (Chazz Palminteri), Dito (Robert Downey Jr.) reflects on the tumultuous events during the summer of ’86 that propelled him to Los Angeles, reliving his run-ins with a gang of violent Puerto Rican graffiti artists, his love affair with Laurie (Melonie Diaz), his days and nights hanging out with his abused, unstable, and violent best friend Antonio (Channing Tatum), working (in the lamest subplot) for a gay dog-walker (Anthony De Sando), and his friendship with Mike (Martin Compston), the Scottish new kid in town whose love of travel, adventure, and poetry represent, to Dito (played, as a teen, by Shia LaBeouf), an alterative life free of violence, insanity, and familial dysfunction.
Montiel structures his flashback sequences like fractured memories, evocatively dropping in and out of incidents, using lithe jump-cuts during discussions, and layering dialogue over conversations to create a warm, authentic atmosphere akin to that of intimate-but-hazy recollections—a mood which, eventually, becomes slightly overplayed. A series of well-choreographed scenes with an off-the-cuff, ramshackle quality are enlivened by the cast’s generally solid performances, the most notable being Palminteri’s wrenching embodiment of desperate paternal devotion—his Monty proving the pitfalls of clinging too tightly to those you love, and the anger and betrayal of abandonment—and the least convincing being LaBeouf’s turn as a tough, disaffected hoodlum. Yet whereas A Guide to Recognizing Your Saints works from moment to moment, its vastly disproportionate emphasis on Montiel’s childhood winds up sapping the contemporary plot of most of its emotional power. Although even if a typically intense Downey is ultimately squandered by a frustratingly underdeveloped storyline about reconciling with the past, his final, largely silent encounter with an incarcerated Antonio is nonetheless a gem of low-key poignancy—as well as a reminder of that most basic parental advice: Mama, don’t let your babies grow up to be Eric Roberts.