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    Ten Thousand Saints (2015): Movie Review

    “An unholy yet moving story about people and places undergoing changes.” 

    Based on the 2011 acclaimed novel by Eleanor Henderson, Ten Thousand Saints is a coming-of-age drama directed by Shari Springer Berman and Robert Pulcini. Featuring a tangle of family relationships and events in 80s New York, the movie is a story of change and acceptance. 

    The film begins in 1980 Vermont where young Jude confronts two realities: his mom, Harriet (Julianne Nicholson) is kicking out his hippie dad, Les (Ethan Hawke) for his infidelity, and that he is only an adopted child. Few years passed and Jude (Asa Butterfield) grew up to a surly teenager with a long lock of hair covering over his face. Jude plans to get high on New Year’s Eve with his best pal, Teddy (Avan Jogia). But much to his annoyance, Les, who now lives in New York dealing and selling pot, sends over to town his rebellious teen daughter, Eliza (Hailee Steinfeld), by his ballerina girlfriend, Diane (Emily Mortimer).

    So Eliza comes with a little bag of coke and she is instantly attracted to Teddy, enough that they make out in a bathroom. Later, Jude and Teddy huff Freon on the street and collapse. The next day, Jude wakes up with Teddy’s frozen corpse beside him. His friend’s death sets off a chain of events that change his life. Relocating to New York to live with his dad, Jude discovers that Eliza is pregnant with Teddy’s child. They found Teddy’s older half-brother, Johnny (Emile Hirsch), lead singer of a hardcore punk band, who is willing to take responsibility with Eliza’s pregnancy. In a sea of confusing emotions and moments, Jude and Eliza find themselves rooting for each other in the 1988 Tompkins Square Park demonstration.

    With its quite messy but interesting material, Ten Thousand Saints is a smart and sensitive film. It is a story about many family relationships that appeal to both teenagers and adult viewers. Despite the seemingly negative events going on, it speaks of them in a hopeful and positive tone, such as adoption as an opportunity, teen pregnancy as an unexpected blessing, and even death as a wonderful remembrance. It examines different families in an insightful manner, particularly ones broken through death and divorce, and ones rebuilt through adoption, birth and friendship. As such is a story of change, we see how each character, no matter how small, develops over time and experience.

    Along with the change of lives is the change of landscape, particularly in New York. It was the late 80s and the Big Apple faced yuppie invasion, war against the homeless, prevalence of drugs, rise of AIDS, violent riots and gentrification. Amazingly, the film captures such social, political and economic changes in a believable and respectful way.

    The cast is solid and impressive. Its young actors are authentic and affecting. Steinfeld is striking and touching as Eliza, especially during her tender moments of confusion and reflection. Hirsch is decent as Johnny, a figure who manage to merge his punky edge with his gentle soul. Butterfield, pretty and mopey, beautifully brings the vulnerability and tantrums of Jude. In yet another flawed father role, Hawke steals the show. His moments as Les, an irresponsible and unreliable dad, are exciting and enjoyable.  Though he keeps failing his children and women with his free spirit, he remains charismatic and irresistible.

    Imperfect characters in imperfect situations make up Ten Thousand Saints. It may not be a saintly material but the film manages to create an appealing and heart-rending work. Its vividly drawn characters move along with its changing landscape. With its remarkable cast and sharp script, this is a worthy adaptation of a well-loved novel.


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