My life in pictures

“A Guide to Recognizing Your Saints”First Look PicturesWritten and directed by Dito MontielStarring: Robert Downey Jr., Shia LaBeouf, Rosario Dawson, Chazz Palminteri, Dianne Wiest and Channing TatumRated R/98 minutesOpened Nov. 10, 2006Three out of four stars

Some people choose a couch and a therapist to work out the kinks in their knotted childhoods, but Dito Montiel is a do-it-yourself kind of guy: He wrote his memoirs in a book and then adapted that book into a movie, which he then wrote and directed.

Talk about cutting out the middleman.

No wonder “A Guide to Recognizing Your Saints” feels so authentic with its slice of life, in-the-thick-of-things depiction of a rough-and-tumble boyhood in 1980s Astoria, N.Y., where teenage Dito (Shia LaBeouf, who is completely convincing as a foul-mouthed ruffian) yearns to escape the mean streets that threaten to consume him, his friends and his family.

Dito takes his self-analyzing a step further by framing his movie with a modern-day story in which Robert Downey Jr. plays the adult Dito, reluctant to return home to his ailing father (a commanding Chazz Palminteri) and the friends he left behind rather abruptly 20 years earlier. His father was crushed when Dito fled for California, and they’ve been estranged ever since.

“You killed your father when you left,” Dito’s childhood gal pal, Laurie (Rosario Dawson), tells him. Maybe he did, but shouldn’t a father want the best life for his kids, even if that means getting them as far away from home as possible? Of course, life is more complicated than that, and when the adult Dito returns to Astoria, he discovers some loose ends that need to be tied up.

These present-day scenes don’t ring as true as the scenes in the past-they feel like what they are: The artist Dito overreaching for that great character-arch in his life, that moment when a person goes “hmm” and suddenly everything makes sense within the simplified borders of movieland.

Much better are the scenes in which 15-year-old Dito and his trouble-magnet friends strain to survive abusive households that infuse them with enough anger to smoke, snort and punch their promising young lives into oblivion. The writing and direction during these scenes is pitch-perfect, capturing the overlapping dialogues and mundane (sometimes too mundane) day-to-day loafing that defines these people’s lives.

The real Dito won the Director’s Award when his film played at the Sundance Film Festival last January, and his superb cast won a Special Jury Prize for ensemble acting. It must be cathartic and exhilarating for him to see his turbulent life unfold on the big screen in 98 minutes. Dito is a talented filmmaker, but I’m curious to see if he can make a movie outside of himself-and if such a movie would crackle as vibrantly as this one.

“Say it again. SAY IT AGAIN! I dare you