Stop me if you’ve heard this one before: a Sundance movie about coming of age? What about about a Sundance movie about teen pregnancy? What about drugs? What about rock ’n’ roll? What about families coming together in a crisis to find redemption? What about social unrest in New York City? What about Ethan Hawke?
Ten Thousand Saints might as well be called “Ten Thousand Movies,” as full as it is with plot and incident, and yet familiar though most of the elements may be, I honestly can’t say I’ve ever seen them assembled in just such a way. Shari Springer Berman & Robert Pulcini (American Splendor) have directed a film that’s both breezy and dense. The film is packed with life-changing dramatic decisions and yet Ten Thousand Saints is pervasively affable, and infectiously kind.
Asa Butterfield plays Jude, a high school burnout on whatever drugs he can find in his small Vermont hometown. He’s still reeling from the departure of his drug dealer dad Les, played by Ethan Hawke, who moved to New York City and hardly ever calls. When Eliza, played by Hailee Steinfeld, visits Jude in his father’s stead – she’s the daughter of his new girlfriend, Diane (Emily Mortimer) – she accidentally kickstarts a series of events that leads to tragedy, followed by Jude’s sudden migration to his father’s East Village apartment in the particularly tumultuous 1980s.
Like many films, Ten Thousand Saints is in love with New York City, and yes, it is “a character in the movie.” At least Ten Thousand Saints expresses its love for the less-traveled boroughs, and fills them with an eclectic mix of characters. Ethan Hawke is phenomenally funny, Emily Mortimer is charmingly overprotective even with all the drug use, and Emile Hirsch is very fun as Johnny, a straight-edged, vegan, hard rocker Krishna who winds up completely embroiled in Jude and Eliza’s ongoing drama, which takes expected turns, unexpected turns, and ultimately just turns and turns and turns like drama usually does. Asa Butterfield is perfectly decent as Jude, who often plays the observer to the stories of others, and Hailee Steinfeld is a real charmer as a young lady with a heart that’s exploding with lively worries.
The story stretches out into unlikely places, but we always feel welcome where Ten Thousand Saints takes us. It’s also just impossibly lovely to watch a film in which every character deals with serious problems without losing their decency or worse, revealing that they never had any to begin with. Everyone in Ten Thousand Saints has failings – many of them quite serious – but all of them at least want to be better, and live their lives with every intention of doing the right thing. And thanks to Berman & Pulcini’s warm screenwriting and intimate direction, they always feel genuine, even when the plot gets a little silly and strange.
Ten Thousand Saints is a wonderfully pleasant film to watch, and although it may not come to great conclusions about all of the issues it raises, it does affirm that people are inherently good without coming across like it’s selling you something. And that’s a very sweet thing to do.