In “Ten Thousand Saints,” Jude is an angst-riddled teenager named after The Beatles classic who lives in 1980’s Vermont. Upset that he never had a real relationship with his pot-dealing New Yorker father Les (Ethan Hawke), he finds solace in punk music and getting high on paint thinner with his best friend Teddy. In an attempt to reach out to Jude, Les sends Eliza, the daughter of his girlfriend, to hang out and bond on New Years Eve. Jealous of the relationship that Eliza shares with his father, Jude doesn’t give her a chance. Things take a turn for the worst when Jude and Teddy get high and pass out outside during a snowstorm. Teddy is found dead, and to keep Jude out of trouble, she sends him to live in New York City with Les.
The story ultimately takes the form of a melodrama set in East Village right on the cusp of the Tompkins Square Park Riot of 1988. It is there that Jude learns Eliza is carrying Teddy’s unborn child, and requests the help of Johnnie, Teddy’s straight-edge half-brother (Emile Hirsch), to help take care of him. This results in an awkward love triangle, and an even more awkward family dynamic.
Directed by Shari Springer Berman and Robert Pulcini (“Girl Most Likely,” “The Nanny Diaries”), the narrative is steeped in nostalgic vibes: Everything from locations to characters are firmly placed in eighties-era New York. The cinematography captures the grittiness of Alphabet City and the Lower East Side in remarkable detail. The streets are covered in trash, and homeless people serve to fill out the atmosphere, as does a period-appropriate soundtrack. But this attention to detail only goes so far.
With time, “Ten Thousand Saints” suffers from a weak story and a script that follows suit. Based on the novel of the same name by Eleanor Henderson, the film fails to offer a sufficient look at any of the characters’ backstories, which makes it difficult to believe in them. The status of their relationships are often told through inferences. While Jude’s mother claims she has a great relationship with Eliza, we only see one scene in which they interact, and Jude’s mother shows more concern for Jude’s sister Prudence than Eliza.
Even the blossoming relationship between the Jude and Eliza seems unconvincing. Their romantic chemistry is painfully forced; a cringe-worthy first kiss scene suffers terribly from the unrealistic dialogue surrounding it.
As Jude, Asa Butterfield gives a wooden, unmemorable performance, his character often fading into the background while the other actors dominate their scenes. Hailee Steinfeld shows some potential, but similarly lacks much depth. Fortunately, Hawke and Emily Mortimer deliver a pair of largely credible performances. Hawke’s Les emerges as the film’s most likable figure, even though he’s a horribly unreliable father. Hawke lights up his scenes with singular comedic timing. But he steals the show rather than saving it.
The movie barrels through numerous different themes, not sticking with any of them long enough to make a difference: Is it a coming of age teen romance? A cautionary tale about drugs versus the straight edge movement? The movie casts a wide net, but doesn’t explore its themes long enough to make any substantial points. Despite its authentic setting, “Ten Thousand Saints” never gets around to providing a gratifying story to accompany it.
“Ten Thousand Saints” premiered last week at the Sundance Film Festival. It is currently seeking U.S. distribution.