Review: Ten Thousand Saints (Sundance 2015)

PLOT: After the accidental death of his best friend, seventeen-year-old Jude (Asa Butterfield) is sent to live with his pot-dealing absentee father (Ethan Hawke). Lacking any kind of guidance, the drug-addled Jude falls under the sway of his late best friend’s half-brother, Johnny (Emile Hirsch) a hardcore punk singer who preaches a straight-edge lifestyle.

REVIEW: I must admit that Shari-Springer Berman and Robert Pucini’s TEN THOUSAND SAINTS was right up my alley, thanks mainly to its evocative 1987-NYC setting, but also due to the fact that I happen to be a sucker for a good coming-of-age tale. While the fact that Ethan Hawke is in this as an absentee father will likely draw comparisons to BOYHOOD, in reality this is more like a John Hughes movie than anything else, right down to the finely curated eighties soundtrack and frequent lapses into heavy melodrama. The latter is not a criticism, I happen to like melodrama.

Based on the novel by Eleanor Henderson, a lot of TEN THOUSAND SAINTS’ appeal comes from the eighties setting, with it being set in Alphabet City right on the cusp of its gentrification. If anything, this part of the city is as much of a character as Butterfield’s Jude, with its overhaul contrasting nicely with his own coming-of-age. He starts the film as a full-on drug addict, not only smoking his dad’s weed, but also huffing turpentine with his pal Teddy (a somewhat haunting Avan Jogia) and, in a dopey choice with deadly consequences, Freon. `

Being an eighties film, Jude’s not alone in his drug use. He winds up becoming friends with the coke-addled Eliza (Hailee Steinfeld), the daughter of his father’s ex-ballerina girlfriend (Emily Mortimer). Together, they try to turn themselves around by embracing straightedge (no sex, no drugs), with it having a charismatic advocate in the big-hearted Johnny (Hirsch). While the movie will no doubt be sold as a Hawke vehicule, the film really revolves around Butterfield, Steinfeld, and Hirsch, who hasn’t had this strong a part in awhile.

Certainly, a movie like TEN THOUSAND SAINTS lives and dies by its cast, and considering the melodrama (all matter of adversity gets thrown at these kids) it’s important for the performances to ground things. This re-teams Butterfield and Steinfeld from ENDER’S GAME and the two work well together, with Butterfield seeming especially grown-up here, even though he has to spend the first half of the movie sporting a truly atrocious eighties hairdo. Meanwhile, Ethan Hawke plays his dope-dealing dad part with a lot of humor, although as the film goes on the performance takes a somewhat more serious turn, which naturally Hawke handles like a pro.

As directors, Berman and Pulcini’s track record is a little hit and miss, and this is familiar territory for them in that it mixes large doses of humor into what you’d assume would be a deadly serious story. This is probably their best work since AMERICAN SPLENDOR, and something that will likely find an appreciative audience if given the right kind of push. Certainly, children of the eighties or those nostalgic for both the era and its style of film-making will appreciate this. It’s a film that clearly has nothing but compassion for the troubled teens at the center of it, and well-worth checking out.

Review: Ten Thousand Saints (Sundance 2015)




About the Author

Chris Bumbray began his career with JoBlo as the resident film critic (and James Bond expert) way back in 2007, and he has stuck around ever since, being named editor-in-chief in 2021. A voting member of the CCA and a Rotten Tomatoes-approved critic, you can also catch Chris discussing pop culture regularly on CTV News Channel.