Too many literary adaptations suffer from what could be called first-person protagonist syndrome: Characters that work as reader surrogates on the page become lifeless sponges on-screen, blankly absorbing experiences. Ten Thousand Saints, a coming-of-age drama from the writer-directors of American Splendor, has a real bad case of FPPS. Though its source material, an acclaimed novel by Eleanor Henderson, isn’t technically written in the first person, the plot clearly unfolds from the perspective of a less-than-proactive character, and the filmmakers provide him with some bookending narration, framing the whole narrative as his recollections. The result, unfortunately, is a movie featuring a teenage hero who spends most of his screen time watching from the sidelines, passively observing events that just sort of happen around him.
Said hero is Jude (Hugo’s Asa Butterfield), named for the Beatles song, because his parents were hippies, and hippies in movies are required to love The Beatles. Jude can’t get over the untimely death of his best friend, Teddy (Avan Jogia), who he talked into huffing Freon with him one fateful night—a dumb teenage bender that ended with the two boys lying side by side in the snow the next morning, one alive and the other a frozen corpse. Thankfully, Jude is quickly rescued from his cocoon of guilt and depression by his estranged, drug-dealing father (Ethan Hawke), who transplants the kid from fictional college-town Vermont to the mean streets of late-’80s New York. Here, Jude begins hanging with Teddy’s preachy older brother, Johnny (Emile Hirsch), who lets him play with his straight-edge hardcore band and turns him on to Hare Krishna. Our young hero also discovers that his dead friend lost his V-card on his last night alive, knocking up Eliza (Hailee Steinfeld), the daughter of his dad’s ballerina girlfriend.
Teen pregnancy? Drug overdoses? Ten Thousand Saints sounds heavy on paper, but there’s a definite element of adolescent wish-fulfillment to its scenario. What 17-year-old boy, after all, wouldn’t want to be whisked off to the East Village to crowd-surf at hardcore shows, get high with Ethan Hawke, and pal around with a pretty girl? (It’s clear that Jude has it bad for Eliza, because the three-chord punk fades into gooey folk whenever she appears before him.) Henderson wrote the novel as a valentine to its specific setting, even using the acknowledgements page to dust off that impossibly moldy cliché—expertly spoofed in last summer’s They Came Together—of “New York as a character.” But in movie form, Saints mainly treats its vibrant musical and cultural backdrop as wallpaper, cramming a bunch of era-specific tunes onto the soundtrack and repurposing the Tompkins Square Park riots as an exciting historical moment to climactically dash through.
Jude’s general unassertiveness makes a degree of sense, as part of growing up is being jerked from one influence to another; it’s perfectly believable that he’d quit smoking and embrace the straight-edge lifestyle overnight. But without the avenue into his thought process that prose can provide, Jude just comes across as a meek bystander, especially as embodied by the moist-eyed mope Butterfield has grown into. Too earnest to despise, Ten Thousand Saints is most endearing as an examination of the ways families are broken (through divorce and death) and redefined (through adoption and friendship). That’s mostly because directors Shari Springer Berman and Robert Pulcini have assembled such a strong cast of surrogate relatives, including Julianne Nicholson (as Jude’s divorced mother), Emily Mortimer (as his new sort-of stepmom), and especially Hawke, offering an even richer, funnier portrait of flawed fatherhood than the one that scored him an Oscar nomination earlier this year. Seriously, it’s a wonderful performance, Hawke managing to convey deep parental affection without once letting the audience forget that the guy he’s playing is something of an irresponsible deadbeat dad. Why couldn’t they have made him the main character?