In this age of mumblecore supremacy and HBO hipsterdom, indie dramas about young men coming of age are a dime a dozen. It seems that all up-and-coming filmmakers have to do nowadays to get their projects funded and shown at festivals is a script about middle-class alienation, a wiry white lead, and a quirky yet not-overbearing soundtrack. Because of this, Shari Springer Berman and Robert Pulcini’s Ten Thousand Saints comes as a breath of mostly-fresh air. Ostensibly about Jude Keffy-Horn (Asa Butterfield), a young teenager from a New England hippie household who moves to Manhattan’s East Village to live with his biological father Les (Ethan Hawke), Ten Thousand Saints is a fascinating glimpse at the rise of one of punk music’s more inexplicable movements known as “Straight Edge.” Repulsed by the destructive, drugged-out lifestyles common amongst the hardcore punk scene of the early 1980s, the Straight Edge movement swore off recreational drugs, alcohol, and promiscuity in favor of clean living.
Jude barely arrives in Manhattan before he is swept into the arms of Straight Edge along with Eliza (Hailee Steinfeld), a friend of his father pregnant from a one-night stand with Jude’s best friend Teddy (Avan Jogia). Tragically, the night she got pregnant was also the one where Teddy overdosed on a toxic combination of Freon fumes and cocaine—the latter of which was provided by none other than Eliza herself. Both Butterfield and Steinfeld manage impressive emotional heavy lifting as they try and navigate the uncertainties that come with having to grow up seemingly overnight. Ben Kutchins’ understated Super 16 cinematography and murky gray and brown color palette plays the perfect counterpoint to their exhausted emotional upheavals (although many scenes are so under-lit that it seems like the film is trying to give Gordon Willis a run for his money).
My biggest problem with the film is also its primary selling point: its New York City setting. As I mentioned, Ten Thousand Saints is essentially the story of the Straight Edge movement. But even a cursory perusal of its history will reveal that Washington D.C. was both its birth-place and epicenter. Setting a film about Straight Edge in New York City is almost like setting a film about reggae in London: there might be a major, loyal following there, but it isn’t the right place to examine the movement’s roots and influences. I think the filmmakers knew this too, considering their rather clumsy attempt to shoe-horn in the Tompkins Square Park riots in the third act as some kind of framing device for the film’s emotional denouement between Jude and Eliza. Ten Thousand Saints does not break any new ground for its genre. But it is competently, earnestly made by creators eager to understand, not judge, its subjects.