Sundance Film Festival: “Ten Thousand Saints” finds familiar teen drama in unfamiliar New York

ten-thousand-saints

Ah, the old New York City of the late ’80s. The graffiti, the crime in the streets, the garbage bags piled everywhere, the rent-controlled apartments where even a middling pot dealer can pay rent. Start spreading the news, I’m leaving today.

Shari Springer Berman and Robert Pulcini’s “Ten Thousand Saints” makes this filthy, pre-Guiliani Big Apple its own character — in a climactic scene, two characters wander into the 1988 Tompkins Square Park riots, considered the first salvo in the gentrification wars that transformed the city.

Unfortunately, it’s also just about the most interesting character in the movie, which is otherwise a rote young-adult drama (based on the novel by Eleanor Henderson). The issue is in the adaptation, which preserves the characters and plotlines but not, for the most part, the underlying emotions. We’re told that characters are drawing closer to each other or changing their lives for the better, but we don’t often see it.

The film begins with a prologue, in which ne’er-do-well father Les (Ethan Hawke) tells his son Jude matter-of-factly that he’s fathering a child with his mother’s best friend, and, oh, by the way, you’re adopted. It’s a great, funny scene, because Les is so oblivious to what major life bombs he’s dropping on his son. But, tellingly, ultimately neither of these revelations really figure into the movie at all.

Skip ahead a few years, and Jude is now a troubled teen (Asa Butterfield), living in a dead-end Vermont town while his dad is dealing pot down in Alphabet City. In one long, plot-filled night, Jude meets his dad’s girlfriend’s daughter, the worldly Eliza (Hailee Steinfeld, Butterfield’s co-star in “Ender’s Game”), stand by as Eliza hooks up with Jude’s sweet friend Teddy (Ava Jogia), and then wake up the next morning to discover Teddy dead from an overdose. These Vermont towns are more complicated than we know.

Les swoops in and drags Jude back with him to New York for a change of scenery, where he proves to be a spectacularly ill-equipped but somehow well-meaning father. Meanwhile, Eliza discovers that she’s carrying Teddy’s baby, and decides she’ll have it with Teddy’s older brother, hardcore musician Johnny (Emile Hirsch).

The plot mechanics are familiar, and never quite jell together into something affecting. A big problem is that Butterfield’s Jude is just a really snotty, unlikable kid. Even when he starts quitting drugs and putting his life back together, rebelling against his druggie father by joining Johnny’s straight-edge (no drinking, no drugs) band, it feels inauthentic, the product of a writer’s mind.

The film’s one real saving grace is Hawke, who I’m sure must be a great dad in real life, because he’s so good at playing flawed ones in movies like this and “Boyhood.” Hawke could have played Les as a charming rogue sort, but instead he’s funnier and truer as a genuine scumbag who is almost forced by circumstances to reveal the decent guy he was all along. He’s the only one of the ten thousand saints worth watching.

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