For some cultures it's not the choice of word that matters so much as the way a word is used -- where the emphasis is placed within the word, on the forceful first letter, extension of the middle vowel or the crashing of the final two consonants, like cymbals at the end of a musical phrase. Pow! The meaning of a word changes according to this emphasis and where it is used in a sentence. For some people, the F-word expresses every human emotion, from tenderness to shock to anger, frustration and wonder. It is the one word that sums up their lives fully, in one satisfying syllable.
These people live in Astoria, Queens and populate Dito Montiel's autobiographical film, A Guide to Recognizing Your Saints. We first meet them as they strut down the gritty sidewalk, a gang of cocky teenagers striding confidently through their home turf. The scene is reminiscent of John Travolta gliding to an imaginary Bee Gees soundtrack in Saturday Night Fever, but it also reminded me of the final scene of Stayin' Alive, the unfortunate sequel (directed by Sylvester Stallone) to the iconic seventies film and of The Simpson's parody, wherein Bart explains that sometimes there is only one thing left to do in life -- strut.
All three of these references came together for me because the characters in Saints are beyond tough, propelled by attitude. Their working class neighborhood is a giant trap that each works in some way to perfect. The streets are dead ends, with their own backward sense of reason and nobility. The whole film is about longing for escape while attempting to cut off all means of achieving it. As the story is told through flashback, we know that Dito (Robert Downey, Jr/Shia LaBeouf) has managed to extricate himself from the neighborhood, from his friends who are stuck there and from the family that has disowned him for leaving.
Dito has returned to his old stomping (literally) grounds to help his mother (Dianne Weist) convince his ailing father (Chazz Palminteri) to go to the hospital. It's a loaded setup that springs all the harsh memories of Dito's boyhood to sweaty, oppressive and violent life. Unfolding over the summer of 1986, A Guide to Recognizing Your Saints covers all the incidents that lead to Dito's escape with real, overwhelming passion and emotion that, in this portrayal at least, is sub-verbal.
While all of the characters are locked in true life-and-death struggles, against abusive parents, rival street gangs, crazy and unpredictable friends, there are moments of pure poetry. When the sun goes down but the heat continues to rise, these teenagers take to the streets, aimlessly seeking distraction, pretending to be adults, but lacking purpose or direction -- the night is wild. Joy is snatched out of the chaos of buildings covered in graffiti that looks like a stylized representation of chain link fence and turns everything into a prison, each layer covering the former version of that fence, marking territory, denoting lines that must not be crossed.
I have to admit that I got caught up in the emotion (probably because the actors were so damned good), but I wished that someone could have found a way to break through, to open the characters' eyes, to zoom out for them into the universe, to show them how small the grudges they carried really were in the grand scheme of things. I wanted the characters to see how they were laying waste to everything they cared about and destroying themselves in the process. Instead, I just felt trapped in their world, a world of mounting frustration with characters that lacked either the will or the intelligence to escape.
A Guide to Recognizing Your Saints opens October 13, 2006.