Ten Thousand Saints is an unusual drama, one where its setting is more interesting than the characters in it. Adapted from the successful novel by Eleanor Henderson, director and co-screenwriters Shari Springer Berman and Robert Pulcini focus on a dark period in New York’s history: one where the streets were still unsafe, squatters rights still mattered, and the AIDS epidemic loomed over everyone. The story, full of semi-functional people who have strange ideas of how to live, is about the clash between self-invention and more traditional values. The stakes are low, yet the characters have a lazy charm about them. Their story is not enthralling, but I wasn’t in a rush to leave, either.
The relationships between all the characters are complicated, even for someone who has read Henderson’s novel, so bear with me. It’s the mid-1980s, and Jude (Asa Butterfield) lives in Vermont with his mother Harriet (Julianne Nicholson). Jude’s father Les (Ethan Hawke) lives in New York City, but he rings Harriet to ask whether Eliza (Hailee Steinfeld), the daughter of his girlfriend Diane (Emily Mortimer), can stay over for New Year’s Eve. Jude takes Eliza with his best friend Teddy (Avan Jogia) to a party, and at the festivities Teddy sleeps with Eliza, plus everyone take copious drugs. Teddy dies of an overdose, so a grieving Jude goes to New York to live with Les and escape Vermont. Jude hits up Teddy’s brother Johnny (Emile Hirsch), a straight edge singer in a hardcore punk band. This is already an absurd arrangement, then Eliza realizes she’s pregnant, and Johnny decides to tell everyone he’s the father.
To some degree or another, all the characters are avatars for specific urban subcultures. Les is an aging pot dealer, for example, while Johnny is the rebellious free spirit who hates Boomer decadence. None of these people are compelling on their own, so Springer and Pulcini are more successful when they focus on the ensemble. There are several culture clashes, and the script plays them for laughs more often than drama. Most of the attention goes to the Jude/Johnny/Eliza dynamic, and there’s an ironic component to their collective grief: Eliza must carry a living memory of someone she barely knew, while the child means that Jude and Johnny delay any sort of closure. In between these moments, Springer and Pulcini film a version of New York that is unique, vibrant, and full of urban rot. The soundtrack is mostly of hardcore punk – Johnny plays CBGBs – and I could not help but be annoyed by the film’s implication that straight edge started in The Big Apple. For better or worse, DC and Minor Threat deserve the credit.
Few characters have any answers in Ten Thousand Saints, and they more or less trust they’ll be fine in the long run. In fact, there are multiple throwaway lines where Harriet and Les comment on how, despite their obvious flaws, their children have good heads on their shoulders. That may be true, and it’s to the detriment of the movie, which is affable and low-key even in the face of death, teen pregnancy, and hardcore drug use. The actors, especially Hawke and Nicholson, reflect the lived-in atmosphere that Springer and Pulcini maintain (Nicholson, a criminally underused actor, has more character development through simple body language than her co-stars with relatively more screen-time). Ten Thousand Saints is a minor elegy for a different New York, one that allowed artists to thrive before skyrocketing housing prices pushed them out. Les, Johnny, and the others are wary of the city’s encroaching gentrification, yet the film ends on the right note, with Jude realizing that a safer place for his dead friend’s kid is a better thing than the last scraps of authenticity.