'Ten Thousand Saints': Sundance Review

A sensitive but not overserious coming-of-age pic with a strong sense of place

Asa Butterfield and Hailee Steinfeld cope with grown-up problems even their parents aren't ready for.

A coming-of-age story whose growing pains are divided among not just adolescents but presumed adults, Shari Springer Berman and Robert Pulcini's Ten Thousand Saints offers both a premise and a setting ripe for nostalgic sentimentality but indulges in little of it. Shuttling between bucolic Vermont and the grime of late-'80s New York, it treats a teen's especially ill-timed pregnancy as a potentially happy moment of truth — a juncture at which varied shards of a few broken homes might be assembled into something like a family, if only the right combination can be found. Smart, sensitive, and accessible to both young and middle-aged viewers, it has plenty of theatrical potential.

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Jude (Asa Butterfield) is an adolescent punk fan bristling at being stuck in Vermont with his hippie mom (Julianne Nicholson) while his long-gone dad (Ethan Hawke) lives in the squalid Bohemia of Manhattan's Lower East Side. When he gets a brief visit from Eliza (Hailee Steinfeld), the worldly daughter of Dad's current girlfriend (Emily Mortimer), what initially might have been the best New Year's Eve ever goes very wrong. The next morning, Jude's best friend is dead, having lost his virginity to Eliza and unwittingly ensured that a piece of him will live on after his death.

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"Go live with your pot-dealer father" is not every mother's solution to teenage anguish, but here it makes unexpected sense. Sent to New York, Jude is treated like a peer by his father Les. (Hawke, now indie cinema's go-to guy for characters who sired kids before they were ready to be fathers, is winning in a performance that mixes street smarts with hedonistic cluelessness.) Jude and Eliza go visit the dead boy's brother Johnny (Emile Hirsch), a musician in a peculiar subculture that blends hardcore punk, clean-living straight-edge values, and Hare Krishna spirituality. ("Krishnacore" — it has a Wikipedia page and everything.) When the boys learn Eliza is pregnant, the three vow to create a family for the child. All that remains is to sell assorted parents on their plans — and, down the road, to figure out whether promises made in a desperate moment are the best idea for anyone concerned.

Though viewers will have to forgive three or four jarring inserts of obvious stock footage depicting pre-Giuliani dilapidation as Jude moves to town, the film benefits from a setting that is a few crucial years removed from the one romanticized by most Lower East Side-lovers: Here, CBGB belongs not to Patti Smith and Talking Heads but to crowd-surfing punks whose culture has yet to be watered down for shopping malls and MTV; squat dwellings are rampant but threatened by gentrifiers; Tompkins Square is a riot waiting to happen. With food and a bed supplied by his dad, Jude takes to the area immediately.

The movie's script, adapting Eleanor Henderson's novel, contrasts this environment with Eliza's privileged background (Mom's a star ballerina who was married to a businessman); it exploits the class prejudices of Mortimer's character, the biggest obstacle to peace in the film, while the actress keeps her human. Of the younger actors, Hirsch has the juiciest part, reconciling a gentle spirit with the aggression of his band and other concerns the film takes its time hinting at. Though many of the dynamics here are familiar (especially the thwarted longing Jude feels for Eliza), the film's shadings enliven them. It often seems Sundance was made for films of this sort, with determined youths fending off messed-up adults while coping with their own crises. If more of them were as unassumingly strong as Saints, we might not sigh when we read their synopses in each new year's program.

Production company: Archer Gray
Cast: Ethan Hawke, Asa Butterfield, Emily Mortimer, Julianne Nicholson, Hailee Steinfeld, Emile Hirsch
Director-screenwriters: Robert Pulcini, Shari Springer Berman
Based on the novel by Eleanor Henderson

Producers: Anne Carey, Amy Nauiokas, Luca Borghese, Trudie Styler, Celine Rattray
Executive producers: Charlotte Ubben, Shari Springer Berman, Pamela Hirsch
Director of photography: Ben Kutchins
Production designer: Stephen Beatrice
Costume designer: Suttirat Anne Larlarb
Editor: Robert Pulcini
Music: Garth Stevenson
Casting director: Ann Goulder
Sales: CAA

No rating, 106 minutes