Anywhere But Here

Who is Dito Montiel? He’s the hero in “A Guide to Recognizing Your Saints.” During the muggy summer of 1986, when young Dito (Shia LaBeouf) was growing up in Astoria, Queens, New York, he was surrounded by people he loved and cared about. By summer’s end, Dito, at the age of 16, has left them all behind.

Dito grew up with friends who worked the New York attitude. They acted tough, mouthed off, talked smack, and fashioned facial bruises. His best friend is Antonio (Channing Tatum), a hunky yet troubled young man. Abused by his father, Antonio often finds solace in Dito’s home, where Dito’s dad (Chazz Palminteri) seemed to dote on him more than his actual son. Dito didn’t seem to mind. Antonio was like family anyway. He was the big brother who protected him. Hanging out with Antonio and the gang seemed like a waste of time though. Walking around the neighborhood and looking for trouble can be a tedious and played out pursuit.

Change started to materialize when Dito meets Mike O’Shea (Martin Compston), a newly transplanted Scot. Mike is easygoing, friendly, responsible, hardworking, and has an endearing accent to boot. Not surprisingly, he and Dito harmoniously hit it off and developed a crucial friendship. To Dito, Mike embodied the opposite of cocky Antonio. He also signified everything outside Astoria, a hometown Dito is told to remain in. To contradict a popular Disney ride, Dito realized – it’s a big world after all.

Who’s Dito Montiel? He also happens to be the writer and director of the movie. For someone who’s trying to portray his life on screen, Montiel should be commended for not having the temptation for an embellished effect. The movie intensely focuses on the characters first. They appear stereotypical from the start, but the movie slowly fleshes them out. It probably helps that they’re based on actual people. But still, even real people are capable of coming across as caricatures on a movie screen.

It helps tremendously that Montiel has intimate knowledge of his characters. This is evident in the screenplay and in the film direction. I don’t know what the confounding title “A Guide to Recognizing Your Saints” refers to, but I have an idea. Perhaps Montiel is so darn close to these individuals that even though they’re flawed on the surface, he recognizes “the saint” within them. Imagine if all movie writers would look at their characters with such understanding. Movies would be so more meaningful and relatable. More and more people might even begin to hug their TV screens and DVDs.

As intimate as the movie might seem, Montiel also knows how to pull back. Actually, I think he’s more impressive when he pulls back and capture the big picture. He probably went to therapy because it’s hard to look at yourself and everyone you know in the bigger scheme of things. Indeed, it’s the psychological depth and range that makes the film fascinating. The two characters that are engrossing to me are Antonio and Dito’s father. These are two men with tough exteriors and yet, watch how easy they crumble. They don’t want to look weak and yet, they put so much effort in it that the process defeats the purpose. The characters here are tricky. They’re not always saying what they truly mean. This is a film where actions truly speak louder than words. The most standout scenes consist of strange actions that don’t seem to be credible. But once you figure out that these characters lack communication skills, all that yelling and pushing actually make sense.

In a movie that pays careful attention to characters, the performances are bound to be fantastic. Sometimes they explode with raw power. Two young actors surprisingly show a great deal of promise with their meaty roles. Shia LaBeouf gives a beautifully controlled performance as the young Dito and Channing Tatum (”She’s the Man” and “Step Up”) conquers the role of Antonio with great brute force. Not to be take for granted, the supporting performances from veterans Robert Downey, Jr., Chazz Palminteri, Dianne Wiest, and the ever-radiant Rosario Dawson are solid too. It’s a great cast for a great coming-of-age movie. Yes, the film has its own flaws too, but hey, I’m an understanding guy. I also happen to recognize the “saintly” side of it.

Grade: A-

Robert Downey Jr., Rosario Dawson, Shia LaBeouf, Chazz Palminteri, Dianne Wiest, Channing Tatum, and Eric Roberts
Based on the book by
Dito Montiel
Screenplay by
Dito Montiel
Directed by
Dito Montiel
Rated R for pervasive language, some violence, sexuality, and drug use