In 2006, I only knew Channing Tatum from playing man-candy roles in teen films like “She’s The Man” and “Step Up.” But had I been paying attention, I would have noticed that he was also in a smaller indie film called “A Guide to Recognizing Your Saints.” Tatum showed such skill and promise as a dramatically compelling and emotionally potent actor; it is such a shame that it has taken eight years for someone like Bennett Miller to convert that potential in “Foxcatcher.”
In a cast that includes Shia LaBeouf, Dianne Wiest, Chazz Palminteri, Rosario Dawson, and Robert Downey, Jr., Tatum is easily the standout. “A Guide to Recognizing Your Saints” is my pick for the “F.I.L.M. of the Week” not solely for his performance, however. Dito Montiel, adapting his own memoir for his screenwriting/directing debut, creates a deeply personal film out of his experiences that shakes up stuffy literature-on-screen conventions.
The action is split between the 1980s and the 2000s as the character Dito (played by LaBeouf and Downey, Jr.) comes to terms with his upbringing in Queens. As a teen, he begins with a vague sense of yearning to move away from the gritty environment of Astoria, and the events of the film further solidify his need for escape. “A Guide to Recognizing Your Saints” does not pass extreme judgment on the other characters, though; Montiel operates from behind the scenes out of respect for the figures of his past and refuses to let them become violent, delinquent archetypes of teen gang members.
Tatum’s character, Dito’s violent but admirably loyal companion Antonio, is defined less by what he does than who he is. This makes him arguably more fascinating than Dito himself, who clearly achieves his aims of getting out since he narrates from decades later; Tatum captures this unpredictability to gripping effect. Montiel’s direction matches this mercuriality, playing with form and self-awareness and discovering some intriguing (if not always extremely successful) results. His “A Guide to Recognizing Your Saints” finds fresh variation on familiar themes and stories – not to mention one talent who is only now receiving appropriate roles.