Film Review: Ten Thousand Saints (★★★)

ten_thousand_saints_ver2If you’re a fan of strong supporting characters, then the coming of age period piece Ten Thousand Saints (or 10,000 Saints if you prefer) is basically manna from heaven. The film is basically full of them, to the point where our lead character is almost too bland by comparison. That’s sort of the situation throughout Ten Thousand Saints, as filmmaking team Shari Springer Berman and Robert Pulcini alternate between these fully realized supporting players and a lead who’s frustratingly passive, even in dynamic situations. They save themselves due to their attention to the period and setting of the story, as well as with some of the performances that get turned in. This adaptation potentially could have been something that Oscar voters would pay attention to, had some of the rougher edges been smoothed and a more even keeled feel been established. That’s not the case, but the acting and details on display wind up making all the difference. Oftentimes in an indie you’re lucky to get one or maybe even two supporting turns of real note, but here the movie is basically littered with them. That makes this an ultimately enjoyable and fulfilling flick, even if there’s some unrealized potential here as well. Ten Thousand Saints gets a recommendation/thumbs up from me, though with the small-ish caveat that this is a good film that had the ingredients to be downright great. Make of that what you will.

The film takes place in the 1980’s (1987, I believe…the year of my birth, in case anyone wants random trivia), both in Vermont and the changing landscape that was New York City (specifically Manhattan’s East Village) during that turbulent time for the Big Apple. Our protagonist is Jude (Asa Butterfield), a drug loving slacker teenager who has moved from suburbia to the city in an effort to re-connect with his pot dealer father Lester (Ethan Hawke), who believes he’s rescuing the boy. Jude’s best friend Teddy (Avan Jogia) overdosed after a friendly visit from the daughter of Lester’s girlfriend. The teen girl is Eliza (Hailee Steinfeld), and she also has taken something back to NYC with her…a pregnancy courtesy of an encounter with Teddy. In Manhattan, Jude begins to see his father in a new light, get to know Eliza, who now has this budding connection to his lost friend, as well as Teddy’s straight edge brother Johnny (Emile Hirsch), who introduces them all to the hardcore punk rock straight edge scene that rejects alcohol, drugs, and sex. A bit ironic, no? The machinations of the plot are a little bit much at times, but the feel for the city is so genuine that it adds plenty of personality to a movie that’s already chock full of it due to these characters.

ten-thousand-saintsI feel bad for Asa Butterfield, who’s far from bad in the lead role, but is asked to play by far the least interesting character in the flick. He’s the simplest, the quietest, and honestly the one you’d least like to spend extended time with. Butterfield does his best, but a decision to not get high is not inherently cinematic. The other characters have so much more to do, it’s a real shame. For one, Hailee Steinfeld gets her best material since True Grit and perhaps turns in her best performance to date since then. She’s a realistic and complicated teen, caught between two guys she cares about who want her to honor the memory of someone she remembers far less than they do. At times, Steinfeld threatens to break your heart. Obviously, Ethan Hawke is his reliably good self, with this role more or less being a stoned version of who he played in Boyhood. That might sound reductive, but in the quieter moments he shares with Butterfield, Hawke’s talents for subtle emotion really shine through. Emile Hirsch has the showiest role of the lot, but he’s as memorable as the others. There’s more to his character than initially meets the eye, but both Hirsch and the script wisely save him from ever being simply a caricature. He’s as fully developed as the rest. Also on hand in solid supporting roles are Emily Mortimer and Julianne Nicholson (both of whom are a bit underused, but more than make the best of their time on the screen), while the cast is rounded out by the aforementioned Avan Jogia as well as the likes of Nadia Alexander, Thomas Hettrick, and more. Hawke, Hirsch, and Steinfeld steal the show though, if you haven’t already guessed as much.

The writer/director duo of Shari Springer Berman and Robert Pulcini can be hit or miss sometimes, but this might be their most successful work overall since they burst on the scene with the Oscar nominated American Splendor. This won’t contend for Academy Award nominations, but Ten Thousand Saints is still effective. Berman and Pulcini get up close and personal with their visuals, while the screenplay periodically attempts to bite off more than it can chew. For example, it’s a great touch when they have Hawke’s character explaining what the changes to come for the East Village are, but when they’re more overtly depicted, it’s a bit on the nose. Still, they capture the feel of the place (I was almost reminded of Inside Llewyn Davis in terms of how this section of Manhattan is brought back to life) as well as some top notch performances, and that’s really something.

Overall, Ten Thousand Saints maanges to do plenty more right than it does wrong, so this isn’t a particularly hard recommendation for me to make. This is well worth seeing just for Hawke, Hirsch, and Steinfeld, so the rest is just an added bonus of sorts. Berman and Pulcini never quite reached that next level that some expected out of them, but if this is where they’re at now, that’s good enough for me. This coming of age story more than suffices. If you seek out Ten Thousand Saints, I have a feeling that you won’t be disappointed by what you find.

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