Ten Thousand Saints movie review: exhausted urban elegy

Ten Thousand Saints yellow light

An achingly perfect evocation of New York’s East Village in the 1980s and an amazing cast cannot make this tale of adolescent anxiety catch fire.
I’m “biast” (pro): love the cast

I’m “biast” (con): nothing

I have not read the source material

(what is this about? see my critic’s minifesto)

Adolescent anxiety playing out against the tumultuous backdrop of the late 1980s in New York’s East Village? I’m there. Hell, I was there, as a student at NYU at the very moment this tale is set, and I can attest that its evocation of the place and time is achingly perfect, from the unrenovated tenements to the funky cafes to the scene at punk club CBGB to the dangerous excitement in the air. Alas that the story of young Jude (Asa Butterfield: X+Y), who has decamped from boring Vermont to live with his drug-dealer dad, Les (Ethan Hawke: Good Kill), and play in a punk band, never quite catches the same sort of fire. It’s tough to pinpoint exactly where this elegant yet dry film goes wrong. Writer-directors Shari Springer Berman and Robert Pulcini have beautifully balanced funny and sad with bittersweet aplomb before, in films such as Girl Most Likely and American Splendor, but here it feels a little forced; maybe it’s that there’s not much truly humorous here, just sad and sadder. The cast is amazing; the film also features Julianne Nicholson (Kinsey), Emile Hirsch (Taking Woodstock), Emily Mortimer (Hugo), and Hailee Steinfeld (Begin Again), the latter of whom is, along with Butterfield, one of the most intriguing young actors working today. Yet there’s a sense that all their characters are more chess pieces being moved around a board, in and out of unlikely circumstance, than real people diving headfirst into messy living. If this is intended as an elegy for the counterculture that was being forced out of the East Village at the time by encroaching gentrification, it’s an exhausted one that gives up and gives in too easily.

See also my #WhereAreTheWomen rating of Ten Thousand Saints for its representation of girls and women.

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