"A Guide to Recognizing Your Saints," Dito Montiel's screen adaptation of his memoir of growing up in Queens, N.Y., pulses with the honesty and spontaneity of early films by Martin Scorsese and Spike Lee.
Like those filmmakers, Montiel takes a time and a place—in this case Astoria in 1986—and brings the milieu to note-perfect life, from the casual ethnic invective teen-age girls hurl on the streets to the cramped confines of a sweltering apartment.
Shia LaBeouf plays young Dito, who runs the mean streets of Astoria with his dead-end buddies and his girlfriend, all played with impeccable realism by an ensemble of gifted young actors.
The older Dito, summoned home 15 years later to reconcile with his ailing father, is played by Robert Downey Jr., who infuses an underwritten role with his signature mix of acumen and soulfulness.
It would have been interesting to see how far Dito's life had veered from his origins; with Montiel's gift for visual detail, it wouldn't have taken much.
But this is an exceptionally assured debut, and Montiel exhibits rare care with editing and sound design. His real forte, though, is casting, to which a brief scene featuring Downey and the incandescent Rosario Dawson powerfully attests.