Ten Thousand Saints is the cinematic equivalent of receiving a mixtape from an old friend, only to remember that their shabby taste in music is one of reasons why you’ve grown apart over the years. Writer-directors Shari Springer Berman and Robert Pulcini don’t so much churn the nostalgia mill in their adaptation of Eleanor Henderson’s novel as apply requisite period specificities and historical touches in an attempt to imbue each scene with a degree of authenticity. They’re under the impression that peppy montages and snippet-style scene coverage offer a vivid sense of time and place, when it actually begets a conservatism that only addresses strife through glancing proximity to difficult matters. As such, there’s a comprehensive sense that they’re placating viewers whose demand for insight ends at the mere mention of an issue and, like a bum mix, hits the same notes on every track, with little interest in changing up the tune.
For example, as young Jude (Asa Butterfield) walks with his father, Les (Ethan Hawke), down a city street, the elder man flatly opines that “AIDS is changing everything around here.” The “here,” as it were, is late-’80s New York City, but that information only really matters if you’re reading the film’s synopsis. As a character within the narrative, the city might as well be Anytown, U.S.A., since all visible evidence of its impact is relegated to limp sign postings via drive-by dialogue. When Jude and his stepsister, Eliza (Hailee Steinfeld), run into some protesters, they’re informed: “The mayor is trying to kick homeless people out of the park!” These events are apparently a reference to the Tompkins Square Park Riot, but, as imagined by the filmmakers, such capstone uprisings are best served as background noise for boys-to-men chronicles that routinely configure adolescent experience.
The comer of age in question is Jude, a 16-year-old who’s neither bracingly brash nor wholly reserved, making him the perfect candidate for Berman and Pulcini’s lukewarm stew of cliché-driven, youthful angst. In the film’s opening scene, eight-year-old Jude learns the cold hard facts from Les: that he’s impregnated a woman other than Jude’s mother and will be moving out shortly. Eight years later, Jude regularly huffs paint and smokes pot with pal Teddy (Avan Jogia), but on a particularly snowy night, their stable realm is jarred by Eliza, who likes to talk music and generally makes the boys nervous because she’s just so damn charming. She’s all about a new movement called “straight-edge,” and in case you didn’t know what that entails, the movie proceeds to explain it multiple times. It also gives Jude the line, “We’re into all kinds of hardcore,” which is meant to be reflective of his youthful ignorance and attempts at overcompensation, but is more indicative of how the filmmakers treat cultural interest with a tin ear, like an Afterschool Special that flatly attempts to convince you of its alternative credentials shortly before denigrating the targeted subculture on moral grounds.
That’s not to say the filmmakers are squares; they’d likely give a “far out” to the characters’ drug use and casual sex. In that sense, Ten Thousand Saints isn’t exploitative, sensationalist, or sentimental, but it’s certainly safe and taciturn in its refusal to provide a jolt of any kind. Even when tragedy strikes early on, the revelation is just another “growing up is hard” dot on the grid, not really much different than losing your virginity, attending a bitchin’ concert, or setting the record straight with your pops. Next to something like the recent Heaven Knows What, the film’s view of street-level hardship is suffocatingly pleasant.