Dito Montiel's autobiographical drama is a potent, if sometimes awkward adaptation of his 2003 memoir.
A Guide to Recognizing Your Saints chronicles a tough neighborhood in Astoria, Queens, about 15 minutes from midtown Manhattan. There's a tumultuous relationship between a son and his father, as well as gang wars, and witnessing a best friend imprisoned for murder.
While the real Montiel got into the club scene, became a lead vocalist and a Calvin Klein model, his interpretation has him narrating as a successful author (Robert Downey, Jr.).
From California he is prodded by his mother, a keen Dianne Wiest, to make things right with his estranged and very sick father (Chazz Palminteri). The interim becomes the crux of the picture in flashbacking to what made Dito head to the west coast.
The dramatization into the past is often dark and harsh showing the rather unpleasant ways of Dito and his friends that may remind some of other gritty pictures like Bully and Kids from Larry Clark.
Screenwriter Montiel puts out plenty of material in much less than two hours, besides the fractured relationship with a proud, lost father, wonderfully done against mafioso type by Palmanteri.
Shia LaBeouf (The Greatest Game Ever Played) gives his all as the young Dito from 1986 and has sharp moments with Melonie Diaz, his Puerto Rican girlfriend, Laurie.
The change from Montiel's real life ultimately shows how Saints is unconvincingly bookended with Downey a tad too old to pull off the present Dito. As the older Antonio, Eric Roberts is an interesting choice, to say the least, to be Antonio, Dito's incarcerated best friend. But, more charisma comes from Channing Tatum (Step Up) as the young, rather slick Antonio. And, Rosario Dawson (Rent) isn't given enough time to register as the older Laurie, who has become a single mom.
Montiel's first effort behind the camera holds much promise as the production utilizes a lively 80's pop soundtrack, though maybe this adaptation could have been more vibrant had it been more faithful to the source.