Set in the late 1980s, Ten Thousands Saints follows Jude (Asa Butterfield) – named after a Beatles song by his hippie parents – a teenager who lives in Vermont with his adoptive mother Harriet and sister, and spends his time getting high with his best friend Teddy (Avan Jogia).

When Teddy dies of a overdose while partying with Jude and their new friend from Manhattan, troubled rich girl Eliza (Hailee Steinfeld), Jude is left devastated. Harriet decides to send him to New York City to live in the East Village with his estranged father Les (Ethan Hawke), who had abandoned him when he was nine.

There he forms a surrogate family with Teddy's straight-edge half-brother Johnny (Emile Hirsch) and Eliza. 

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SUNDANCE FILM FESTIVAL: The screwed-up girl has left her bright, lipstick-smeary mark on this year’s Sundance. There is the disappearing bad girl in Strangerland; the young temptress in Diary of Teenage Girl, a film giddily received by audiences here; and then there is Hailee Steinfeld’s Eliza in Ten Thousand Saints, a New York doll with a blood-red mouth and a pocketful of coke. Eliza’s voice, like her hair, is preternaturally, big-city smooth; young men, especially small-town young men, are desperate to impress her. Eliza is desperate for them not to remember her as the most screwed-up girl they ever met.

Eliza, sadly, is not the hero of Ten Thousand Saints, a coming of age story set in 1980s Vermont and New York City; or she might be, but she is not the figure at its centre. That is 17-year-old Jude (Asa Butterfield), a small-town New England kid huffing and smoking and snorting his adolescence—and his abandonment issues—away. Jude’s father Les (Ethan Hawke) is a piece of work in the sixties burnout mould, just swinging and impregnating and divulging at will, without menace but without any sense of compunction either. The night before he leaves Jude’s artisan mother (Julianne Nicholson), he tells Jude he was adopted. Thanks, and see you later, dad.

Several years pass, enough time for Jude to grow a long, dumb tongue of hair that lolls about the center of his face. Jude and his best friend Teddy (Avan Jogia) both have absent dads and a liking for hardcore and straight edge—the music, not the drug-free scene. On New Year’s Eve, Eliza, the daughter of Les’s new girlfriend (played by Emily Mortimer) stops into town, and the three spend a night together that ends in Teddy’s death by overdose, and Eliza’s pregnancy with Teddy’s child.

"The screwed-up girl has left her bright, lipstick-smeary mark on this year’s Sundance."

Co-directed by Shary Springer Berman and Robert Pulcini (American Splendour), Ten Thousand Saints is based on a novel by Eleanor Henderson. Watching the characters and layers of incident add up, not to mention Jude’s anime-like tail of hair, I found myself reminded of a graphic novel—moments captured in frozen images, each one full of signifying detail but self-contained, having little depth. The story of how Eliza, Jude, Teddy’s rocker brother Johnny (Emile Hirsch) and two errant sets of parents handle Eliza’s pregnancy unfolds a little like a hay ride—raucous, itchy in parts, and prone to tossing off strands or even the odd bale along the way.

Ten Thousand Saints is most successful as a nostalgia piece for the decrepit, 1980s-era New York, where most of the film takes place, shot here in green and gray shades of smoky, dark winter light. Jude has dreams of living in the city, and an ill-defined crush on Eliza; Johnny, for reasons that later become clear, suggests claiming Teddy’s child and raising him as his own.

Teddy’s death seems to have no impact on Jude’s drug use, and although Hawke gives a truly delightful, comic performance as Les the Mess, his active encouragement of Jude’s habit is one of many elements that go unexamined, which makes the film’s larger themes—about family and generational breakdowns—feel only half-conceived. Also a problem is Butterfield’s wan screen presence: Jude is meant to hold Ten Thousand Saints together, but in every scene he fades into the action, or is swallowed by a soundtrack that includes cuts from The Replacements, The Cure, and other eighties favourites.

Butterfield is also no match for the surprising Steinfeld, who gives Eliza a compassion and intelligence beyond that of your prototypical screwed-up girl. She is a living light among variously filled in caricatures, which is exactly, I suppose, what a young girl in New York City might imagine herself to be.

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