Summer Of Sam did it. So did Saturday Night Fever and Mean Streets. And ditto Dito Montiel’s partially biographical coming-of-age story set in ’80s Queens. His debut feature captures an era and mood with such intoxicating swagger that you can almost smell the soiled clothes his teen protagonists posture in, feel the heat of a sweaty metropolis and taste the dead-end frustration on every dilapidated corner.
Told from the point of view of LA screenwriter Dito (Robert Downey Jr), who is forced to confront his past when he returns to visit his estranged, ailing father (Chazz Palminteri), Guide splices between adult Dito’s demon-facing and the tragedies and fears that forced his teenage self (Shia LaBeouf) to skip town. “My name’s Dito,” Downey intones at the start, “and I’m going to leave everyone in this film.” It’s a conceit that works well, imbuing each character with a tragic heroism as Downey warns that, by the end, three boys will die.
Surely one will be brooding hunk Antonio (Channing Tatum) whose brutal home life and yearning for connection is expressed in rage, crime, violence and urgent screws in tenement stairwells? Or Scottish Mike (Sweet Sixteen’s Martin Compston), who teaches Dito the pleasures of watching the world from a subway train in one of the film’s dreamy, evocative sequences? Maybe Giuseppe (Adam Scarimbolo), who seems to have no concept of consequence, will find one of his bravado stunts goes too far?
Watching the summer hurtle towards inevitable catastrophe through a series of petty fights, family showdowns and misspent moments hanging around train tracks is a bittersweet and enlivening experience, as these heartbreaking characters burn brightly within their snapshot of fearless youth.
Former Warhol protégé Montiel knows how to create visceral cinema using arresting images and a nostalgic soundtrack, but plopping his own screenplay pages amid the action serves only to destroy suspension of disbelief and smacks of pretension. Who needs those kind of quirks when you have a cast this immediate? Though Downey Jr and Rosario Dawson (as a former flame) are reliably on the money, it’s the ballsy young ’uns who really shine. Particularly ex-model Tatum, exuding charismatic, feral intensity to disguise vulnerability, powering the narrative with his fists and strut, despite this being Dito’s story.
A deserved hit at Sundance, Guide plays like Stand By Me crossed with Kids. It's as promising, beautiful and gritty as its onscreen 'saints'.