Distilled from the eponymous memoir by Dito Montiel, A Guide to Recognizing Your Saints works a familiar theme: the struggle to break free of the old 'hood, doubled by the bonds that draw one back. In a notable debut as director/writer, Montiel sets his memory piece during the sizzling summer of '86 in Astoria, Queens, evoking the mean streets of Scorsese's seminal work, as well as the more recent Manito and Raising Victor Vargas.

Anchoring the film is Dito-fictionalized and distinct from the memoir's author-embodied in youth by Shia LaBeouf, and 15 years along as a successful L.A. writer, by Robert Downey, Jr. Dito and his buddies-among them the violent Antonio (Channing Tatum) and his near-psychotic brother Giuseppe (Adam Scarimbolo)-channel their energies into battling over turf and graffiti, and playing lethal games with the third rail at their subway stop. Big fish in their small cesspool, they're going nowhere fast. Counterweights to the mayhem are Dito's savvy girlfriend Laurie (Melonie Diaz, later played by Rosario Dawson), and Dito's classmate Mike O'Shea (Martin Compston), newly arrived from Scotland, who writes poetry and plants the dream of taking off for the Coast. Meanwhile, Dito's overbearing father, Monty (Chazz Palminteri,) sets the stage for conflict by preaching loyalty to family and local community.

The extended flashback is beautifully framed by the grown Dito's somber voiceover as he invokes the past, and a poignant phone call from his mother Flori (Dianne Wiest), imploring him to come home-after a 15-year absence-to help tend to his ailing father. The mature Dito's presence wraps fluidly through and around the childhood scenes-credit excellent D.P. Eric Gautier's dancing, swirling camera (reminiscent of his work on Patrice Chereau's Intimacy) for cannily capturing the texture, the chiaroscuro tones, even, of remembrance. Finally, past meets present when Dito's feisty former girlfriend urges him to ante up and make amends with his parents.

Yeah, Montiel films from the heart. And the evocation of place-Dito's close, sweaty apartment, the black rooftops and a nighttime public pool-is spot-on, while the actors' high-caliber ensemble work justly picked up a Special Jury Award for Best Ensemble Performance at Sundance. But Montiel's first effort remains episodic and inward, failing to build a bridge to the viewer. True, these kids lack role models, yet they're more a testimonial to America's spiritual wasteland than characters who compel our sympathy. The prime emotional nexus-Dito's refusal of his father's love-remains murky and under-explained; we can only guess that Dito equates the paternal bond with entrapment in the old 'hood. The film snaps into focus once the grown man and his ex-lover hold the screen-thanks to the magnetism of Downey and Dawson-but it's too late and too little.