Many of us remember the era defined by mix tapes, music videos and the end of the Cold War. But the new indie film Ten Thousand Saints, set in 1989, focuses on three teenagers in an awkward love triangle during a time when class tensions were simmering in New York City’s East Village.
The movie opens with disgruntled mom, Harriet (Julianne Nicholson) kicking her bohemian husband Les (Ethan Hawke) out of their Vermont home. By the time their son Jude (Asa Butterfeld) has grown into a teenager, he’s bitter and resentful toward his pop. Les now lives with a new woman in an upscale home in the East Village, and sends his stepdaughter Eliza (Hailee Steinfeld) to pay Jude a visit.
Jude and Eliza share a strange connection that’s made more complicated when his pal Teddy (Avan Jogia) joins the mix and the three party together one night. Teddy starts putting the moves on Eliza, who’s on a cocaine binge. But when huffing paint fumes leads to tragedy, Harriet sends Jude off to New York City to live with his dad.
Les introduces his son to life in the East Village, where homeless people have set up an encampment in Tompkins Square Park and are refusing orders to take it down.
When Eliza reunites with Jude, she’s sullen and withdrawn after the tragedy that happened in Vermont. The two start hanging out with Teddy’s half-brother Johnny (Emile Hirsch), who’s part of a group of straight-edged punk rockers that don’t do drugs or alcohol. Once Eliza discovers she’s pregnant, Johnny volunteers to care for the baby.
As a lenient father who’s thrust into a parenting situation, Hawke is entertaining playing a role that’s similar to the scruffy dad from the first half of his film Boyhood. But Steinfeld inhabits her role in a way that keeps the teen guarded and opaque, so we may not feel we have enough of a chance to truly learn what’s driving her.
When Les warns his son about the AIDS epidemic that’s rampant in the city, it’s a reminder of the sense of desperation in the streets that may shape people’s choices.
It’s not a huge surprise when we ultimately learn that one of the characters is gay and has chosen to remain closeted back then. And while Ten Thousand Saints is not a story about the gay community, per se, it does share the idea that remaining in the closet in the late 1980s was the choice many folks made.
The story meanders a bit as the characters clash amidst the escalating tensions in Tompkins Square Park, which ultimately break out into a fiery riot at the climax of the film. But none of the characters are involved in the class tensions, so the orange flames serve as nothing more than a dramatic backdrop for what otherwise feels like a semi-popular John Hughes film.
Folks who were around back in the late 1980s will appreciate the nostalgia factor of Ten Thousand Saints. Berman and Pulcini never over do it with the vintage clothing or music, and they get major points for authenticity, including landmarks of the era across the East Village like CBGB’s and a four-foot high mural for the popular Yaffa Café.
Perhaps the film adaption of Henderson’s novel could have worked to better integrate the story into that set and setting, since her coming-of-age tale could have easily worked as a modern fable and lost little in the translation.
While it’s unfocused at times and it’s tone can be confusing, the movie is an effective portrait of young people trying to connect during a memorable time and place.