Set amid the Tompkins Square Park Riots, Ten Thousand Saints follows the story of Jude (Asa Butterfield) whose young life begins in an abrupt and clumsy revelation by his father Les (Ethan Hawke) who tells him that he’s adopted. After that, Les is no longer a stable figure in Jude’s life, weaving in and out of it. But Jude’s life changes overnight when Eliza (Hailee Steinfeld), the daughter of his dad’s girlfriend (Emily Mortimer), passes through Vermont on her way back to New York City. Following some tragic events, Jude ends up living with his father in New York and forms an unlikely family with his best friend Teddy’s brother Johnny (Emile Hirsch) and Eliza, all in the midst of the changing neighborhood of the East Village in the 1980s.
In its own way, the film is very much a period piece. Set in a time of vast changes, the surrounding gentrification of a neighborhood is the backdrop of a teenager’s changing life. They’re both chaotic and hold a fragile balance between one thing and another, so it’s easy to see why the directing/screenwriting duo of Shari Springer Berman and Robert Pulcini have striven to highlight these parallels between the character of Jude and the setting.
Based on the book by Eleanor Henderson, Ten Thousand Saints is gritty, with raw and layered performances by its cast. Events take a quick turn in the beginning before slowing down and developing. Each character represents a certain aspect of a different lifestyle and most especially potent is the relationship between Asa Butterfield’s character and Ethan Hawke’s character, who is very much the comedic relief from all the drama happening all around. Hailee Steinfeld most especially impresses as Eliza. She’s the epitome of spoiled upper class girl at first, but her life changes the most drastically and Steinfeld makes this transition believable as she is both vulnerable and still so obviously young.
However, the multiple story lines lined up don’t always come together. Teddy, played by Avan Jogia, who in so many ways is the catalyst for everything that happens in the film, isn’t in the movie for very long. And so we’re often forced to believe that many of the character’s decisions are based on what he would have wanted when we never knew him long enough for him to merit any true significance. Also unnecessarily tacked on (underdeveloped really) is the question or mystery of Emile Hirsch’s character near the end of the film. It didn’t feel aligned with the rest of the movie simply because it came in too far down the line.
Ultimately, Ten Thousand Saints is an interesting and gritty look at a changing time with characters used to reflect that time. The backdrop of the changing neighborhood could have come more into play, however, if only to quicken the pace around the midway point when everything becomes a bit sluggish. And some of the characters aren’t as well-developed, but Springer Berman and Pulcini bring to the screen some realism and grunge which, along with good performances, keep the movie from dragging too much.
Release Date: August 21, 2015 | Directors and Screenwriters: Shari Springer Berman, Robert Pulcini | Cast: Ethan Hawke, Asa Butterfield, Hailee Steinfeld, Emile Hirsch, Emily Mortimer, Julianne Nicholson, Avan Jogia | Genre: Drama | MPAA Rating: R for drug use including teens and language including sexual references