(02/03/07)A Guide To Recognising Your Saints opens timidly, with a slightly fidgety Robert Downey Jr. sitting in what appears to be a dimmed television studio, introducing his new book, an autobiography retelling his disrupted and dishevelled upbringing on the mean streets of Astoria, a rough neighbourhood in Queens, New York. Downey plays Dito Montiel, now an accomplished writer based in Los Angeles, who is suddenly summoned back to his neighbourhood for the first time in fifteen years to assist the imminent death of his father. Dito Montiel is also the name of the film’s director and writer, and the first of many clues by which art imitates reality in Montiel’s first foray into the world of filmmaking, a brave and affecting coming-of-age account of the pains of growing up and chasing one’s dreams and a deliberate reference to Montiel’s own life.

If the prosaic setting recalls cinematic ‘gangsta hood’ staples such as Boyz ‘N The Hood, it’s because A Guide’ emotional heart firmly grapples a familiar filmic canon which Montiel’s script heavily borrows from. A Guide’s narrative kernel shifts back and forth between razor-sharp flashbacks retelling Montiel’s hard-bitten adventures as a kid (played by Shia LaBeouf) living it up on the mean streets of his down-and-out neighbourhood and his present day qualms about having to face a family he hasn’t seen in more than a decade. Downey’s Dito reminds us of the transience of time, the shattering convergence between our past and present frequently adverse to the choices we have made to shy away from either.

The Sopranos and Kids mingle audaciously in the tightly executed ensemble scenes. Replete with sweaty, vigorous urgency, Montiel draws audacious performances from the young part of the cast and his film comes to life in moments of authentic emotional honesty, when moralising is passed over in favour of unadulterated, raw storytelling. Those scenes are a testament to the innocence of the kids’ hard-up lives and the crude realisation of their dreams being split between their ambitions and the harsh realities of their everyday lives. Everyone is aware of a better future somewhere else, yet finding the motivation to part with your familiar milieu is all but easy.

Montiel’s movie has its heart in the right place, yet the storytelling is susceptible to coming across as a circuitous brew of good ideas and half-executed expositions. Whether focusing on the gang’s everday roughed-up brawls or their gawky relationships and muddled dependencies, Montiel seems to finally give in to the pitfall of not taking the script anywhere. The consequence is a curbed understanding of the flashbacks in the context of Monitel’s current state of mind, with a wider contextualisation remaining entirely up to us.

Downey uses his screentime in the most efficient way possible, but there is little he can do to shy away from all that’s underwritten about the grown up Dito. Instead of ‘recognising his saints’, Dito seems to have chosen a confusing state of indifference towards his past, with threads tracing back to his rugged upbringing taking an unexpectedly oblique turn at the end. What started out as a solid coming-of-age piece about the dynamics of place and relationships therein gets lost in a misty haze of lost connections and cloudy emotional decisions. Redeemed by some memorable performances, this is an otherwise befitting calling card for Montiel. In his favour, A Guide To Recognising Your Saints won both the Dramatic Directing Award and a Special Jury Award for Best Ensemble Performance at the 2006 Sundance Film Festival, and despite not saying anything knew, it manages to keep you on your seat for its entire running time.

A Guide to Recognising Your Saints opens in the UK today.