Today: June 12, 2024

Ten Thousands Saints

Punk rock in late 1980s NYC is the backdrop for this coming of age tale about love, loss, loyalty, growing up and well, just finding your own way and place in the world. 

Filmmakers Shari Springer Berman and Robert Pulcini – adapting from Eleanor Henderson‘s 2012 novel of the same name – bring an undisputed empathy and authenticity to the story of Jude (Asa Butterfield), a troubled teen who is shown in flashback right at the start here being told by his deadbeat yet highly philosophical dad Len (an onform Ethan Hawke) that he is adopted. 

Flash-forward a few years and we meet Jude as Misfits loving adolescent who, after a tragic incident in which his best friend and small town Vermont partner in crime Teddy dies, is sent to NYC to live with his dad. Len lives in a one-room East Village neighbourhood Alphabet City, a stone’s throw from Tompkins Square Park, the preserve of the beatniks, homeless and misaligned of this pre-Giuliani city, which itself is on the cusp of a defining moment as burgeoning gentrification saw battles waged on the streets for the control of these such neighbourhoods and New York’s very identity. What could happen to a troubled teen in a town and time like this? Well, plenty.

Jude finds friendship in Eliza (Hailee Steinfeld),  the daughter of Len’s girlfriend Diane (an uptight Emily Mortimer who is happy to judge the moral degradation of the people on the ground while enjoying Len’s high-grade weed). To complicate matters, Eliza is carrying Teddy‘s child, and then embarks on a relationship with Teddy‘s older brother Johnny, a straight edge musician and tattooist squatting on the Lower East Side (played by a scruffed-up and smirking Emile Hirsch). 

This love triangle sits at the centre of multi-stranded story, as the threesome bound between gig and parental dwellings, navigating the perils of teen pregnancy, their own emotions, unreliable parents, and all the while grappling with the the social identity that comes with being a part of sub cultures in a city whose own identity is undergoing a transformative experience with the onset of AIDS and yuppy-ism. It’s an intimate story at its core, but which unfolds within a much grander one. 

‘Period’ New York is lovingly recreated, with CBGB’s the heartbeat of the music scene Jude finds companionship in. Yet as Johnny observes at one point, “sometimes we can use the scene as cover,” and despite intentions determined by either a self disciplined stringent straight edge moral code, a weed-growing hippy, live and-let-live outlook, or even the view from the doormen-defended apartments of Manhattan – everybody’s best intentions are susceptible to the same fallibilities of just being human

The authenticity Berman and Pulcini fashion is admirable, and all encompassing, and their clear empathy for the scene, era and characters at its heart, raises the level of this sometimes cliched drama. The performances are superb: Butterfield instills Jude with a naïvety and yet a steadfast reliability his father never had; Len is a spin-off in some ways from Hawke’s father figure in Linklater’s Boyhood, a reckless yet loveable rogue who doeplenty wrong yet sometimes when it matters most manages to do the right thing; and Steinfeld brings a warmth to the sometimes one-note role of Eliza, whose teen pregnancy arc is refreshingly presented as a celebration of life rather than a terminal mistake.

New York – here seen through the prism of hardcore punk as its transitions from hood to high-end – is as much a character in the film as the people living their lives within, but sometimes it feels as if the lager story – that of the city itself – is the more dynamic and compelling. It’s an accomplished drama that is more than the sum of its parts, and will appeal to those who know and are enamoured with the scene, but which will probably hold less interest to outsiders of this group of outsiders.

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