Dito Montiel's A Guide To Recognizing Your Saints is on its face an undeniably personal story—it's based on Montiel's memoir of the same name, it centers on a character named "Dito" (played in turn by Shia LaBeouf and Robert Downey, Jr.), and it starts with a Lenny-like reading of Montiel's acclaimed book. So why does it look so much like Mean Streets or Saturday Night Fever? Is it because those films were exceptionally precise about growing up in New York during a certain period, or because Montiel's memories have been reconfigured by the movies? Whatever the case, the film feels like an earnest retread over old territory, albeit one that intermittently comes to life thanks to an amazing cast, expressive cinematography by French master Eric Gautier (Irma Vep), and Montiel's obviously heartfelt sentiments.
An unusually subdued Downey stars as a Los Angeles writer who's summoned home to Queens by his mother (Dianne Wiest) to visit estranged father Chazz Palminteri, who's fallen ill and refuses to go to the hospital. Downey hasn't been back in 15 years and he left more than a few loose ends in his wake, including an old girlfriend (played in an extended cameo by Rosario Dawson), a bitterly disappointed father, and a troubled best friend doing time at Rikers. As he returns to the hornet's nest, Downey reflects on his turbulent coming of age in the mid-'80s, when he and his rambunctious buddies tore up the neighborhood and got themselves into trouble with local thugs. Shia LaBeouf plays Downey as a teenager, and Channing Tatum stands out as his closest friend, a loyal young bruiser who suffers regular physical abuse from his father. In essence, LaBeouf is Harvey Keitel to Tatum's Robert De Niro.
Montiel attempts to interweave past and present, but he yields so much time to his teenage years that the present-day material comes perilously close to looking like a framing story. That's especially unfortunate, because there's a lot of unfinished business between Downey and Palminteri, and also because Downey's scenes are among the film's most wrenching parts, particularly in a lovely coda in which he finally visits his incarcerated friend. While there's no reason to doubt the verity of Montiel's story, certain elements bear so much resemblance to other movies of its kind that they look made-up, and it doesn't help that the period cues (the "Welcome Back, Kotter" theme, the Lionel Richie "Hello" video) are a little on-the-nose. In revisiting his past on the screen, he's made his memories all too cinematic.