Title: Ten Thousand Saints
Directors: Robert Pulcini and Shari Springer Berman
Starring: Ethan Hawke, Asa Butterfield, Emily Mortimer, Julianne Nicholson, Hailee Steinfeld, Emile Hirsch
Losing a friend at a young age can be a traumatic and formative experience. It is hard to deal with the permanence of the situation and the fact that they are not coming back. That can be especially difficult when that person has unintentionally left behind a remnant of themselves that will be impossible to forget. Where that leads is an individual path paved with memories and aspirations. In Ten Thousand Saints, the death of a close friend leads the film’s protagonist to explore a whole new life that he never would have had if not for that catalytic event that changes his course.
We first meet Jude (Asa Butterfield) in 1980 when, at a young age, he is told by his lackadaisical father Les (Ethan Hawke) that he has impregnated another woman and, in the same conversation, that Jude was adopted. Les is hardly an ideal parent, and by the time we next see Jude, with hair hanging down in front of his face as if to express his constant frustration with the world, he is living only with his sister and his mother Harriet (Julianne Nicholson). Les is not out of the picture fully, and he feels inclined to send his girlfriend’s daughter Eliza (Hailee Steinfeld) to visit on New Year’s Eve. A night of hard drugs and lost virginity results in the tragic death of Jude’s best friend Teddy and Jude moving to New York City to live with his dad. His life is further complicated when he learns that Teddy got Eliza pregnant, and the two form a friendship with Teddy’s brother Johnny (Emile Hirsch) as a way to hang on to him.
That setup leads to a story about coming of age for three people who are much younger than they seem and who spend time mostly with adults who do not act their age. Les is the worst offender, growing marijuana in his apartment and imposing rules only after Jude breaks them. He is hardly a good influence, yet Jude seems to thrive when he spends time with him. Part of that, of course, is the positive influence of the mature but naïve Eliza and straight edge band leader Johnny, who feels distant a lot but does manage to help get Jude clean, an important step considering the road the troublesome teenager was on before Jude’s exodus to New York City.
The city plays a big role in the film, as does the 1980s Alphabet City scene, as Johnny’s apartment, right next to Tompkins Square Park, is the center of civilian protests about proposed expulsion of the homeless and gentrification of the area. Having drug dealer Les, retired elite dancer Diane (Emily Mortimer), Les’ girlfriend, and sweet-natured Vermont artist Harriet as the responsible adults contributes to the film’s countercultural nature. Jude, Eliza, and Johnny are living in changing times, though teen pregnancy is hardly the most widespread problem of the era.
Butterfield and Steinfeld are two of the most impressive young actors working today, constantly delivering mature performances that feel very professional. Hirsch started out as one of the same, and so it is a treat to see the three together. Hawke portrays a variation of the part he played in Boyhood, and it is far more satisfying to see Mortimer playing slightly against type as a snobby rather than frazzled intellectual Brit. The actors are well-cast, but there is something about this story that just does not click. It has many intriguing and powerful moments, but, like Jude’s life, the cohesive whole is more than a bit flawed.
This Sundance Premieres entry has held several public screenings in Park City thus far, with one more scheduled.
Written by Abe Fried-Tanzer