‘Ten Thousand Saint Saints’
Directors:
Shari Springer Berman, Robert Pulcini
Stars: Asa Butterfield, Hailee Steinfeld
Rating: R
2 (out of 5) Globes

The most impressive part of “Ten Thousand Saints” is how convincingly it summons up a dirtier, grimier Manhattan. The majority of the film takes place in the Village and Alphabet City — now squeaky clean and moneyed, but in the late ’80s, when “Saints” unfolds, a Boschian hellscape, home to squatters, dealers and anyone else with absolutely nothing, and therefore nothing to lose. Some liberal production design and careful shot selection bring this all back, turning it into a spiky playground for its characters, chief among them lead Jude (Asa Butterfield), a Connecticut transplant suddenly spending more time with ’60s burnout dad (Ethan Hawke). Jude himself isn’t just a bland tabula rasa; he’s a teen on edge, struggling with a drug problem, plus the unreturned affections of Eliza (Hailee Steinfeld), who’s knocked up with his newly OD’d friend’s child.

In other words, “Ten Thousand Saints” has a great, specific world to explore. But a film with a good setting does not automatically make it a film that knows what to do with it. Based on a novel by Eleanor Henderson, it truly feels like a movie based on a novel — meandering and not as textured as a medium that better allows for views that are more than shallow. 

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Instead “Saints” tries to coast on its setting and its admittedly refreshing lack of hysteria. It doesn’t make a meal out of drug use, nor out of Eliza’s out-of-wedlock teen pregnancy. It’s even using two nice young actors — Butterfield and Steinfeld — without rubbing our faces in the stunt casting. (Steinfeld may not be a convincing cokehead, but she has a willpower that’s vivid and exciting.) It even entertains the notion that a father who abandoned his kid, and who still carouses and impregnates with abandon, and, on top of that, who doesn’t seem concerned with his son’s habit, can still be a good dad. (Hawke, a former child actor like the 18-year-old playing his kid, has now become the go-to actor for Cool Dad.) 

At the same time it lacks structure, and sometimes goes too far with the comic tone. Directors Shari Springer Berman and Robert Pulcini (“American Splendor”) can never resist a wacky eccentric, and Emile Hirsch, as the leader of a straight-edge Hare Krishna straight-edge hardcore band with an Avenue D HQ, has at least two quirks too many. The story builds to a riot in Tompkins Square, then home to the homeless, but like everything it winds up an afterthought. It’s a good idea with nowhere much to go.

Follow Matt Prigge on Twitter @mattprigge