‘Ten Thousand Saints’ Employs a Punk Rock Spirit in Service of a Smart Little Drama

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Punk rock is that blistering music that is practically the perfect catharsis for teenage angst. Having exploded in the late ‘70s as an angry rejection of the bloated, self-absorbed ways of the hippies, punk rock is still wrought with tales of excess and self-destruction. Which is where we see the genesis of the straight edge movement, itself a rejection of types of hedonistic excess. Ten Thousand Saints, the new film from the writing-directing duo of Shari Springer Berman and Robert Pulcini, wraps a somewhat typical coming of age story within the confines of the late ‘80s hardcore movement in New York City. It’s a modest film that hits more often than it misses.

The film opens with a flashback to a young Jude (Henry Kelemen) being told by his philandering father Les (Ethan Hawke) that he’s adopted, and that his father, having just been caught cheating, would be moving away. Years later, Jude (now played by Asa Butterfield) is a disaffected teen living in a scarcely populated town in Vermont with his mother (Juliette Nicholson) and sister (Nadia Alexander). He hasn’t seen his father in years, carrying a ton of resentment towards his distant father. Jude passes the time with his best friend Teddy (Avan Jogia). When not fantasizing about their impending college days in New York City, they’re huffing paint and smoking dirt weed. On New Year’s Eve, Eliza (Hailee Steinfeld), the daughter of Les’ girlfriend, comes to town and the trio of teens makes a series of bad decisions involving sex and drugs that will leave a ripple effect for all involved.

Here’s the thing, it’s hard to get further into the events of Ten Thousand Saints without going into SPOILER territory. So, if you wish to avoid spoilers and want the gist of it, Ten Thousand Saints has a bit of heart to its somewhat familiar tale. This is a film that avoids a cartoonish approach to the past, and features some fine performances, especially from Ethan Hawke.

Alright, now into SPOILER territory: On that fateful New Year’s Eve, before returning to New York, Freddy and Eliza hook up in the restroom at the party. At the end of the night, Eliza now shuffled back to the Big Apple, Jude and Freddy proceed to huff Freon. The two pass out in the snow, and only Jude wakes up. Weeks later, Jude is living in New York with his father and Eliza is learning she’s pregnant. The two teens seek out Freddy’s older brother Johnny (Emile Hisrch), who is the straight edge singer of a hardcore group. He doesn’t drink, do drugs, smoke, or fornicate, and frequents a Hare Krishna temple in his spare time. Eliza has decided to keep Freddy’s baby as Johnny and Jude try to prevent Eliza’s mother (Emily Mortimer) from finding out. Much to the chagrin of Jude, Johnny and Eliza have a blossoming relationship.

Ten Thousand Saints works as well as it does because while it travels in familiar territory, it doesn’t meander on the same old beats. It doesn’t use Freddy’s death as this revelatory moment where Jude realizes he’s been a slave to intoxicants and goes straight edge. That would be too clean because teenagers make bad decisions, and usually do so in bunches. That’s exactly what happens here. Ten Thousand Saints is also adept at avoiding portraying a subculture of a subculture in ways that are simplistic or pandering.

Having previously adapted Harvey Pekar’s American Splendor, Shari Springer Berman and Robert Pulcini bring the same kind of understanding of subcultures and recent history in adapting Eleanor Henderson’s novel. Ten Thousand Saints isn’t nearly a flourished stylistically as American Splendor, but it presents a keen knowledge about characters on the fringes, never making their decisions feel forced. The duo also coaxes some solid performances from Asa Butterfield and Hailee Steinfeld, the latter being wonderful in nearly everything since her breakthrough in True Grit. Emile Hirsch isn’t the most convincing hardcore singer, but works really well as this kind of naïve idealist convinced that he’s right in all he does. Easily, the finest performance of the film goes to Ethan Hawke, who seems to be building a monopoly on the well-intentioned, extremely flawed father.

Ten Thousand Saints isn’t a rockin’ ode to punk – it’s not We Are the Best! – but it is a smart little drama set upon the backdrop of punk rock. It wisely avoids a ton of handwringing in its portrayal of teen pregnancy and drug use. This film isn’t a masterpiece, but Ten Thousand Saints carries its punk rock spirit and solid performances through some rough territory with a bit of charm and humor, coming out of the pit only somewhat sweaty and bruised.

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