Warning: Contains spoilers:
In The Who song, "My Generation", lead singer, Rodger Daltrey stammers in frustration as he struggles to describe his own youth. He stutters until he eventually blurts out the message he hopes to convey. In one of the early scenes in Dito Monteil's film, "A Guide to Recognizing Your Saints", we are introduced to the adult Dito, sitting in the shadows on a stool wearing combat boots while he prepares to give a reading from his book by the same name. He is uncomfortable, he is anxious, and he is hesitant because what he is about to read isn't merely ramblings from a fiction novel. What he is about to read is an excerpt, a real life essay torn from the pages of his own life. After a series of what feels to the audience like false starts, his words begin to formulate, staggered at first, not unlike Daltrey, until they finally come, thoughtful, yet jagged.
Montiel abruptly begins, "I want to remember these people and what they meant to me..." "A Guide to Recognizing Your Saints" is a brilliant montage of memories that might resemble broken glass if it could assume a tangible shape. It's not for the faint of heart, nor is it for those who live in fear of one day confronting what we've tried to safely tuck away in the recesses of our repressed memories. It's a story about youth, and hurt, and anger, and jealousy and a longing for freedom. It's about love and it's about tribal warriors. It's about territory and family codes and it's about unwavering, undying friendship.
These young teenagers and the people of Queens in the 1980's inhabited a world that embodied the graffiti message, "Your live here. You die here." Their lives revolved around family and interpersonal relationships and rotated the inside pocket of their neighbourhood. Their's is a life where everyone knows your name and you are bound to a sense of duty to the place that has spawned you. But, sometimes the things that give us our identity and provide us with security can become stifling, and threatening and tough and frightening. And sometimes the pain of watching a friend die, or losing someone to an accident, or having to live with the knowledge that your best buddy is going to prison for manslaughter can be too much for a young person to bear.
There's a scene in the 1982 movie, "Rumble Fish", where Motorcycle Boy explains that two fighting fish cannot co-exist in the same bowl because when living things are in too close in proximity, they will kill one another. Shia LaBoeuf, as young Monteil doesn't wish to become a victim of his surroundings, that could end up suffocating and choking him. He wants to go to Coney Island and he needs to experience Manhattan, and the beaches of sunny California. LaBoeuf as Dito, holds the audience captive to every emotion he experiences as he moves in slow motion through the film like a detached observer to mayhem. That is, until he is finally constricted by the beat of the street and can no longer avoid his desires, or pretend things are right. The love Monty and Florrie have for their son, Dito, is never in question, but must parental love exist only under the condition that a child does what is expected of him? Should he stay behind and forfeit life experiences and liberation in order to uphold family traditions? Even when he's dying inside? There's a point in the film when Dito's childhood girlfriend Laurie tells him he left a trail of blood behind when he deserted his parents, but one might argue that the trail of blood left behind in Queens is what perhaps paved the way for Dito's final retribution.
When Monty becomes ill, Dito ( Downey) returns as the prodigal son to the nest he left behind. In Downey's supreme understated performance we are immediately treated to a Zen-like calm. But we quickly determine who this young man has become. The world he turned his back on is reflected in every single laugh line, and in the essence of his beautiful but tormented face, because those lines serve are a reminder of who he is. Dito's frail sense of security unravels shortly after he arrives home because he knows he will have to face all that he put behind him. When he reunites with Laurie, their conversation quickly evolves from sharing mutual memories to accusatory and angry words. Laurie, like Monty, cannot comprehend a world that doesn't include family and clusters and ties. Soon enough and surely enough, he and Monty are again embroiled in a confrontation, re-opening the wounds from their past. The climatic moment between father and son is realized when Dito learns that Monty truly did love him. He knows it because his father tells him so. Dito sensed it all along, but because of the fragmented events of his teen aged years, the daily battles, sometimes won and sometimes lost, he and his father lost sight of what their true feelings were for one another. Love had became a word employed to inflict hurt, rather than a source of comfort and sanctuary. As it turns out, love was not lost on Antonio either. Spending a life sentence at Riker's, we see the familiarity, the warmth and the connection between two friends exhibited with ease when the adult Antonio takes his place across the table from Dito. Not many words are spoken between these men, but like with any bond that is thicker than blood, words aren't always the most effective method of communication. In this case, their eyes say it all and Dito understands.
As writer and first time director, Dito Monteil convincingly brings us to the heart of the New York groove.
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