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As a gritty memoir, 'Guide' loses its way

Dito Montiel had a rough adolescence in mid-1980s Queens. Presumably, he's emerged intact: Robert Downey Jr. and Shia LaBeouf are playing him in the movie he wrote and directed about his hard-knock life.

In ``A Guide to Recognizing Your Saints," the first-time filmmaker aspires to show us what caused him to leave his neighborhood and stay gone for 20 years. All I can really glean is that the place was too loud. The film's epicenter is the elevated subway. And any time a conversation can culminate in expletive-laced screaming, it does.

Before he leaves, young Dito (LaBeouf) spends a lot of time with his buddies -- Giuseppe (Adam Scarimbolo), Nerf (Peter Tambakis), and dim, unstable Antonio (Channing Tatum) -- doing what certain city kids do when it's hot outside: chill and cause trouble. They harass local store owners, spew racial slurs, fight with Puerto Ricans, and push up on tough, dirty-mouthed girls.

Dito's home life seems normal. Mom (Dianne Wiest) is sweet and doting. Dad (Chazz Palminteri ) likes to tell stories. Something's got to give -- a movie requires drama, after all. So one character meets a terrible end. Things heat up violently with the Puerto Ricans. And Dito, needing to flee from all this mayhem, decides he'd rather head off to California with the new Scottish kid (Martin Compston) in his class. This news angers Mr. Montiel in an over-my-dead-body sort of way.

Based on a memoir of the same name, the movie certainly thrives on its sense of authentic local color, and a couple of the young actors have real back-alley charisma. The diminutive Tambakis sounds like he's 6 and looks like he might not have bathed in a week, but he's intimidating. There's more menace in him than in both LaBeouf and Tatum, who is meant to be the hothead of Dito's posse.

Maybe I've seen Tatum rolling thick in too many urban adventures (``Coach Carter," ``Step Up") but he seems more hip-hop than rock 'n' roll, which is how Montiel remembers his character here. Or maybe even with a bloody face, he's too pretty to be this gritty.

While the movie is mostly set in 1986, the story is interrupted by moments from the present, in which the adult Dito has become a reasonably successful author out west. He heads back only after his mother calls to report that dad is sick. He becomes reacquainted with his old girlfriend (Rosario Dawson) and then with mom and dad. More actorly shouting ensues. But the sequences of his return are jammed so randomly among the flashbacks that it's easy to mistake then for now.

While he shows flashes of inspiration as a director, Montiel works hard to take us where we've already been (druggy weirdos, horny kids, sweat-stained T-shirts, baseball-bat beat downs, petty crime). It's as if he'd never seen ``Mean Streets."

``A Guide to Recognizing Your Saints" lacks the religious soul that Scorsese's film thrived on. The word ``saints" appears in the title, but the film is ultimately agnostic. Montiel's biggest savior appears to be himself.

Wesley Morris can be reached at

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