There’s a lot to like about the new film from American Splendor and Girl Most Likely directors Shari Springer Berman and Robert Pulcini, Ten Thousand Saints. The coming of age dramedy doesn’t exactly break the mold when it comes to the genre, but there’s a bounty of wonderful, funny supporting performances that make the film a fairly enjoyable experience. There’s one major problem with Ten Thousand Saints, however: the main character is wholly uninteresting.
The story takes place in the 1980s, during the transitional period in New York City when the yuppies started buying up all the “bad” neighborhoods and transforming them into upscale real estate. Asa Butterfield plays Jude, an adopted young boy with an incredibly distracting piece of hair flowing down the middle of his face, signifying his fondness for the hardcore scene (there were audible sighs of relief in the audience when he cut it off). Jude was raised by two very 1970s-influenced parents. His mother, Harriet (Julianne Nicholson) is the artistic sort, crafting hand-blown glass bongs, while his father Les (Ethan Hawke) is a bit of a burnout who happens to grow his own crop of marijuana.
The crux of the story takes place during Jude’s adolescence, as he lives with his mom in boring Vermont while his frequently absent father calls New York City his home, where he carries on a long-term relationship with a well-to-do Manhattan widow named Diane (Emily Mortimer). On New Year’s Eve, Les and Diane send Diane’s own teenage daughter Eliza (Hailee Steinfeld) to visit Jude in Vermont, where she strikes up a one-night friendship with Jude and his best friend Teddy (Avan Jogia). Quite possibly the only hardcore fans in their town, Jude and Teddy pass their time in Vermont huffing paint thinner and smoking basically whatever they can find.
When a tragic incident takes Teddy out of Jude’s life, both he and Diane are thrown for a loop, meandering around in two very different states of despair. Jude is sent to New York City to live with his dad in an effort to get him out of his funk, and the film finds Jude, Diane, and a slew of memorable characters navigating this thing called life.
While the film begins in a rather derivative fashion, making it seem as if we’re in for an hour and a half of the same coming of age movie we’ve seen time and time again, Berman and Pulcini are able to morph the film into an ensemble once Jude gets to the city, and the movie is all the better for it.
Hawke is irresistibly charming as the fun-loving Les, a character we’ve seen before but not quite like this. The actor does something special with his magnetic performance, making Les feel like a genuine human being rather than some archetype that simply serves as the Ghost of Christmas Future for his son. He’s incredibly funny, honest, and playful, with a tinge of sweetness that makes overlooking his flaws quite easy.
And Steinfeld turns in her most mature performance to date as Eliza, a young girl who’s been relatively spoiled with freedom her whole life, but finally faces a point when she’s forced to grow up and start acting like an adult. It’s a layered performance and, like Hawke’s, refuses to delve into cliché despite the fact that it’s a fairly familiar character. Emile Hirsch also does fantastic work in the film as Teddy’s straight-edge, Hare Krishna-following brother Johnny, the most humble narcissist you’ll ever meet. He imbues lines like “There’s nothing not to like about me” with such affability that you can’t help but smile; that’s a testament to Hirsch’s loveable screen presence.
But then we have Jude, a character who just kind of exists on the sidelines of his own story. When we meet Jude, he’s sad and miserable and angry, which is in keeping with the adolescent/punk character that’s been put together, but no less annoying. The people surrounding him have it just as bad, if not worse, and they seem to be getting along just fine. He comes off as whiny and petulant, making the character somewhat unlikeable despite a solid performance from Butterfield.
Halfway through the film, Jude literally becomes an observer in the story, watching the more interesting things happening around him. And that’s kind of fine since the supporting ensemble here is so strong, but when things come back around to Jude at the end of the film, it’s tough to feel any strong emotions about his personal journey.
Berman and Pulcini also attempt to find some kind of cultural relevance to the story by weaving in real-life events from NYC’s upheaval at the time, but they mostly come off as distractions since the film doesn’t really dive deep into any of these issues. They’re addressed as cursory at best, and when the emotional climax of the film is meant blend with a major culture clash happening in the city, it rings false and unnecessary.
Despite its flaws, Ten Thousand Saints is a mostly likeable film. The central theme of finding oneself and growing up may not coalesce that nicely due to an odd lack of focus and characterization of Jude, and the film becomes a little too saccharine towards the end, but the ensemble makes the picture worth the ride thanks largely to terrific performances all around and an MVP turn by Hawke. Growing up is tough, sure, but it’s much more fun when you’re surrounded by colorful characters.
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