They say youse can never go home again. Nevertheless, Queens-bred big-timer Dito Montiel revisits his old Astoria stomping grounds in A Guide to Recognizing Your Saints, a Sundance-sanctioned testosterone indie loosely based on the thirtysomething writer-director and occasional fashion model's neo-Beat semiautobiography of the same name.
Montiel may be a singular talent -- maker of one of the more arresting New York neighborhood penny-pinchers since Mean Streets -- but this is a tale of at least two Ditos. The real Montiel -- the one of press-release legend, anyway -- got 15 minutes with Warhol before the Factory closed, primped for Versace, and started a punk band, Gutterboy, that signed to Geffen for a mil in the year of Nevermind (and soon became whatever). As if eyeing an eventual movie deal, the Dito of Montiel's 2003 memoir drops purple mescaline, patronizes a Times Square brothel, and, contrary to the moral of Mean Streets, makes up for his sins in the church. The book starts and ends with the same verse from Chapter 1 of Genesis ("And God saw the light . . .") --the immodest star born and then (for good behavior?) born again.
Called by Ma (Dianne Wiest) to come home and see the old man (Chazz Palminteri) before he croaks, Robert Downey Jr.'s weathered hipster scribe takes a break from his spotlit L.A. reading engagements and, sporting the kind of thick, dark-hued designer blazer that remains rare even in ever-gentrifying Queens, slowly climbs the crooked stairs to Apartment 2B. At least half of Montiel's movie comprises extended flashbacks to the moist summer of '86, when teen Dito (fresh-faced Shia LaBeouf) came of age by carousing with his crew of fellow pubescent hotheads -- i.e., ogling girls in tank tops and jean shorts when not engaging in violent ante-upping with "the Puerto Ricans."
If this tit-for-tat sounds a lot like Saturday Night Fever (and I didn't mention the half-accidental-death-by-public-transit scene), the borrowing isn't necessarily Montiel's alone: Sampling the greatest hits of Tony Manero's fuck- and fight-fueled white-boy-on-the-rise routine has hardly been unique to budding artists in the outer boroughs for the last 30 years. Still, Dito is a special case: He dreams of hopping the $39 bus to California with Mike (Martin Compston), a recent arrival from Scotland who writes poetry.
Right from the jump it's clear that, like Travolta's high-stepping bridge-crosser, this downtown-bound Queens kid is going to leave everyone: Montiel dutifully includes a shot of young Dito breaking the fourth wall to declare, "I'm going to leave everyone." (Dito's less-fortunate crush Laurie, tenderly played by Raising Victor Vargas' Melonie Diaz, looks to the camera and says, "Everyone will leave me.")
Whatever the first-time filmmaker lacks in subtlety and finesse -- not even the snow-white Sundance Screenwriters' Lab could bleach Montiel's script of its corner-deli grit -- he recoups by other, more playfully attitudinal means. Indeed, beat for beat, the dialogue rivals classic rock for being familiarly catchy, skimping not at all on the ba-da-bing and yo-yo-yo en route to the relative gravitas of Downey's "Daddy, did you love me or not?" Palminteri's Pops ain't exactly a talker, as Ma admits, but even this typewriter repairman has his riffs: "Hey, you know me, rock o' Gibraltar, right?"
Classic rock it is: Despite the mid-'80s setting, DJ Dito favors choice cuts from the decade prior -- even shit like "Welcome Back Kotter," which positively kills in this stayin' alive context. (Trudie Styler and Sting -- 2 of 12 credited producers, including Downey -- probably didn't hinder the licensing.) Gerry Rafferty's "Baker Street" -- cued by Frank (Anthony DeSando), a coked-out, queer dog-walker who might've graced the real Dito's 'hood, but wouldn't be here without Boogie Nights -- builds indelibly to the cheesy guitar solo, whereupon Montiel cuts to the startlingly commonplace and flat-out perfect image of cherry-red squad-car lights reflecting off the flimsy siding of an edge-of-town shack.
Cinematographer Eric Gautier (Clean) plainly digs Montiel's preference for poeticism over vérité; indeed, he might have taken the job just to show that wood paneling under soft white bulbs emits an orange glow, that the Manhattan skyline beckons like Oz when seen through the rain-spattered window of an elevated train in Queens. Montiel, whose book includes photos by no less than Bruce Weber and Allen Ginsberg, may have declined to dramatize his own fabled tutelage under Drella. But, blessed enough to have drawn Gautier and Downey away from better-paying gigs, the kid hasn't likely failed to recognize his saints.