Grade: C

Here’s a film that certainly means a great deal to the man who made it–writer-director Dito Montiel, who based it on his own memoir. But failings in the telling make it mean a good deal less to the viewer. “A Guide to Recognizing Your Saints” is a joint coming-of-age and coming-back-home story, which juxtaposes bits from the life of a teen-aged character on the verge of leaving his highly-charged Queens neighborhood in 1986 with others showing him returning there in the present day to visit his ill, and long estranged, father. It’s certainly filled with emotion, but the passions are so wild and all over the place that while it’s probably easy for the auteur to understand them, to an outsider they seem muddled and often incomprehensible. And while Montiel’s organization of the fragments–both recollected and contemporary–obviously has psychological meaning to him, to others it can’t help but come across as a jumble. The result is a picture of some generalized power that’s nonetheless unfocused and awfully high-pitched for comfort.

The movie opens with grown-up Dito (Robert Downey Jr., in a brooding performance) being informed by his long-suffering mother (fragile Dianne Wiest) that his father Monty (Chazz Palminteri) is seriously ill but won’t go to the hospital. She asks him to come home to New York from California to take Monty in for treatment. Dito reluctantly returns, but the old man brushes him off, and being in the old neighborhood triggers memories of the days before his departure twenty years earlier, when he ran with the abused, cocky, violence-prone Antonio (Channing Tatum), Antonio’s goofy brother Giuseppe (Adam Scarimbolo) and almost-as-goofy pal Nerf (Peter Tambakis), while enjoying an adolescent romance with Laurie (Melonie Diaz). The young Dito (Shia LaBeouf), we see, had a run-in with a gang of Puerto Rican graffiti artists that resulted in his being beaten up–an episode that led Antonio to intervene and, ultimately, to tragedy. Dito also befriended a new classmate from Scotland, Mike (Martin Compston), whose artistic bent and longing for travel led the two of them to dream about moving west, a plan that they hoped to fulfill by making money as dog-walkers working for a local drugged-out entrepreneur (Anthony De Sando).

Montiel intercuts this coming-of-age story with scenes of his return home in the present. In these Dito fights with his frail but fuming father, has heart-to-hearts with his mother, revisits Laurie (now Rosario Dawson) and her young son, and eventually makes a kind of peace with his personal demons by seeing Antonio (now Eric Roberts) as well.

A number of factors detract from the effectiveness of the now-and-then organization imposed on the material. One is that the amount of time devoted to the 1986 story is so great that it overwhelms the balance Montiel is trying to achieve. Another is that while most of the cast is solid–Tatum is particularly good as the violent Antonio (though it’s rather sad that he’ll grow up to look like Roberts), and Compston, from Ken Loach’s “Sweet Sixteen,” is excellent as well–LaBeouf never really convinces as the young Dito, seeming just too soft and out-of-place in this hard environment (a major flaw, given his centrality to the film).

But even more seriously debilitating is the fact that the sequences tend to be not only fragmented but disjointed and emotionally opaque. We’re simply thrown into the middle of family squabbles and volatile interpersonal relationships that are never explained, but merely presented as givens. You’re often left wondering why people are acting as they are. (The father’s reactions are so extreme, for example, that his motives are obscure. Why does he simultaneously act more fatherly to Antonio than to Dito, yet react so ferociously at the mere mention of Dito’s leaving?) In a way, the challenge to a viewer of figuring all this out is welcome; but since any solution seems purely speculative, the effort is unrewarding.

Like its title, “A Guide to Recognizing Your Saints” has a certain pretentious air about it, and in the end matches its ambitions only sporadically. It’s a film of some interesting parts that’s just too florid and messy to succeed as a whole.