It’s great to see married director duo Shari Springer Berman and Robert Pulcini back at Sundance, the location of their breakout film “American Splendor.” While they’ve put in great work in the meantime, their latest, the excellent “Ten Thousand Saints,” is a roaring return to the fest that made their name. Adapted from the debut novel by Eleanor Henderson, “Ten Thousand Saints” is a melancholy yet sweet and hopeful coming of age story that explores every aspect of life’s complications. Though funny and full of heart, it’s no quirky or lighthearted flick, as a rich vein of darkness and reality courses through the film’s style and content.
Set in the late 1980s, “Ten Thousand Saints” is the story of teenage Jude (Asa Butterfield), stuck in Vermont with his hippie mom Harriet (Julianne Nicholson), huffing chemicals for kicks with his best friend Teddy (Avan Jogia). Things get turned upside down when Eliza (Hailee Steinfeld), the daughter of his deadbeat dad Les’ (Ethan Hawke) girlfriend shows up in town for a night. Jude’s jealous of the girl who gets to spend time with his dad in the cool city, and the connection between Teddy and Eliza only exacerbates Jude's self-destructive moodiness.
Jude eventually heads to New York to live with his dad, as roommates more than father and son, and befriends Teddy’s brother Johnny (Emile Hirsch), the straight edge lead singer of hardcore band Army of One, and proud Alphabet City squatter. Eliza, Jude and Johnny band together into a tight unit when Eliza finds herself pregnant. There are plenty of obstacles and dysfunction that the unconventional family unit has to break through in order to help Eliza. Though it’s dealing with difficult subject matter, the film teems with life throughout every funny, bittersweet, and wild moment, slapping a smile on your face that won’t go away and you don’t know why.
“Ten Thousand Saints” has a rich, textured look, with a tendency toward the dour and desaturated in its cinematography, which fits the milieu of angsty ‘80s teens in the city. The production designers have lovingly recreated the Lower East Side and Alphabet City of the era — including a very accurate CBGBs recreation and the dearly departed Yaffa Café. The climax of the film is set against the Thompson Square Park Riots, capturing the moments of conflict and transition in New York at the time. And of course the soundtrack is a perfectly curated blend of deep cuts, tending towards the classic hardcore sound, though they aren't afraid to throw some R.E.M. into the mix as well. Serious shout outs to the costume team as well — the period specific looks are spot on and would be coveted by any hipster today.
What really holds the film together are the performances. Butterfield is all grown up and captures the transition from brooding, bad-behaving teenage boy, to eventual romantic lead against the always excellent Steinfeld. Emily Mortimer does excellent comic-tragic supporting work as her mom, uptight ballerina Diane, and Ethan Hawke is fantastic as the buffoonish stoner dad who remains staunchly reliable nonetheless. After "Boyhood," you would think we might be sick of Hawke as the Cool Dad, but he gives a completely unique and distinct performance as Les. He's legitimately funny, caring, and thoughtful despite his instincts towards chaos.
"Ten Thousand Saints" is an instant winner, a film that wraps you up in its fully realized world. Heart-warming, funny, and real, which means at times it can be desperately sad, this is a fantastic new development for Springer Berman and Pulcini. This one's going to go far. [A]