3½ stars (out of four)
No one can accuse Dito Montiel of sugarcoating his past. The memoirist turned screenwriter turned director has hit it out of the park with his first feature, crafting an unflinching, often brutal retrospective of his formative years in Astoria, Queens.
It was the worst of times and that's pretty much the sum of it. Simmering violence, drug abuse, aggressive sexuality and supreme dysfunction were facts of life for Dito and his friends. Not that they saw it that way. Wandering through the streets, upending garbage cans, cat-calling girls, harassing immigrant bodega owners, the young Dito (Shia La Beouf, in what should be a career-defining performance) pronounces, "This is heaven." The movie intersperses flashbacks from that summer with the present day, when Dito returns home after 15 years to confront his dying, bitter father.
"A Guide to Recognizing Your Saints," is culled from Montiel's book of the same name, but anyone expecting a faithful page-to-screen translation will be disappointed. Montiel, who adapted the memoir for the screen, labored to smooth the book's jagged edges and stream-of-consciousness transitions into a narrative flow, leaving the intensity of his memories intact.
The movie is awash in great performances by actors known and otherwise. Robert Downey Jr. plays the adult Dito, and he's supremely magnetic as always, reminding us again that a truly great actor can do more with a raised eyebrow or a twitchy cigarette than others can achieve with the entire script of "Macbeth."
Downey ricochets with his typical nervous energy between the characters who define his New York life. Rosario Dawson appears in the small but beautifully realized part of the grown-up childhood love interest, while Chazz Palminteri is the tortured father who cannot forgive his son for abandoning him. Dianne Wiest plays Dito's mother, whose weariness hovers over her like a fog. It's a shame that Wiest's sublimely understated performance gets so little screen time.
The real revelation here, however, is Channing Tatum, a relative unknown whose turn as doomed tough guy Antonio reaches heights barely hinted at in his previous roles (as the appealing but generic leading man in teen flicks "Step Up" and "She's the Man"). Brooding, physically commanding and dangerous, Tatum's performance recalls Brando at his peak.
Abrasive and challenging, "Saints" is also deeply warm, without ever succumbing to sappiness. That's a real feat given its subject matter: homecomings, as lesser films have proven, are ripe for sentimentality.
'A Guide to Recognizing Your Saints'
Directed by Dito Montiel; screenplay by Montiel; photographed by Eric Gautier; edited by Jake Pushinsky and Christopher Tellefsen; music by Jonathan Elias, Jimmy Haun and David Wittman; production design by Jody Asnes; produced by Charlie Corwin, Clara Markowicz, Trudie Styler and Travis Swords. A First Look Studios release; opens Friday. Running time: 1:38. MPAA rating: R (for pervasive language, some violence, sexuality and drug use).
Dito (adult) - Robert Downey Jr.
Dito (young) - Shia LaBeouf
Laurie - Rosario Dawson
Monty - Chazz Palminteri
Flori - Dianne Wiest
Antonio - Channing Tatum