Former punk rocker Dito Montiel's directing debut is so thick with gritty urban realism you can almost smell the desperation pouring down the pavement of the streets. It's also so full of such dead-end stereotypes and familiar beautiful losers that you'd think it was assembled from pieces of other movies, if it wasn't based on Montiel's own popular memoir.
How close these characters are to their real life inspirations is unknown, but the author's deep passion for them is clear, and the cast is stellar. This is a film so dedicated to performances and texture that the actual mechanics of plot get woefully lost in the shuffle.
A clunky flashback structure has Dito (Robert Downey Jr.) returning to his old hood and reflecting on the heady days of 1986, when he was a teenager on the road to ruin. Shia Lebouf plays young Dito, whose artistic ambitions are awakening, but who is mired in the thuggish chaos of his neighborhood. His parents (Dianne Wiest and Chazz Palminteri) are overbearing; his girlfriend (Melonie Diaz) is needy; and his best friend, Antonio (Channing Tatum), is a ball of rage. Dito is clearly bright and has California rock-star dreams that are shared by his Scottish immigrant pal, Mike (Martin O'Shea), but he just can't seem to find a way to escape his guilt over leaving his hopeless community; nor can he find a graceful way to cut the cord. The heart of the movie lies in the strength of the young actors, who are all terrific especially Tatum, who displays a smoldering intensity. Unfortunately, when the movie flashes forward it starts to falter, as the adult versions (including Rosario Dawson as Laurie and Eric Roberts as Antonio) seem less well-defined. It's as if Montiel can't get a grasp on who they've become, compared to his memory of who he wanted them to be back then. Strangely, it's the almost-always-outstanding Downey who seems to struggle the most, partly because his role is too introspective, and partly through some indulgent acting choices.
The timeline digressions also take away from the drama and dull the immediacy of otherwise gripping material. Montiel certainly has skill, and he creates an atmosphere that intentionally evokes early Scorsese. He leaves plenty of space for his actors to create compelling, real people, but he simply seems to be too close to the material, getting lost in the haze of his own biography and confusing personal nostalgia with emotional gravity.
Corey Hall writes about film for Metro Times. Send comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.