Hawke shines in thin ‘Ten Thousand Saints’

“This would make a great movie,” all of us have sighed while mind-directing a film from the novel we’re reading. But most of the time it wouldn’t really make a great movie, because a movie is a different animal entirely.

“Ten Thousand Saints” conveys a passionate desire to capture a 2011 novel by Eleanor Henderson, but it looks like a quickly sketched version of something much, much larger.

You want big canvas, you’ve got big canvas: We follow teenager Jude (Asa Butterfield, the kid from “Hugo”) from his turbulent life in small-town Vermont to the grungy streets of the East Village in the late 1980s. His drug-dealing adoptive father Les (Ethan Hawke) returns to the boy’s life to insure he has a place to crash in the city.

The movie has hardcore music, a tragic death, and that laziest of plot devices, the unexpected pregnancy that changes everything.

There’s a lot to pack in, and without the pacing of a novel, the hurly-burly of the story piles up in huge heaps. It’s all utterly sincere, which is part of the problem; you’d expect a little more edge from writer-directors Shari Springer Berman and Robert Pulcini, who made their name with the caustic “American Splendor.”

Just as the movie begins to create some sense of atmosphere and character — the chilly Vermont town where Jude and best buddy Teddy (the excellent Avan Jogia) hang out and huff turpentine — the film is off on another tangent. There’s Teddy’s musician brother (a likably earnest performance by Emile Hirsch), and Les’s classy girlfriend (Emily Mortimer), and her cheeky daughter (Hailee Steinfeld, of “True Grit”).

Everybody rushes through the paces of the increasingly convoluted plot, and that’s leaving out characters who are curiously under-seen. Jude’s got a sister Prudence (the parents were big Beatles fans, apparently) who must have an interesting story of her own, but we glimpse her mostly in passing.

When the film tries to draw significance from the gentrification of the East Village, it clearly reaches too far.

There is one through-line worth noting, however, and that is the nimble performance by Ethan Hawke. Maybe the casting is too easy; Hawke has played this kind of good-hearted screw-up before.

But he really has mastered the art of portraying well-meaning but hopelessly addled masculinity, and he makes Les a humorous and ultimately very human figure. Only Hawke could make Les’s concern over the quality of his son’s marijuana supply seem like a caring, fatherly gesture.

“Ten Thousand Saints” (2 stars)

A very sincere attempt to boil down Eleanor Henderson’s novel into film form, but the movie feels like a quickly-sketched version of something much, much bigger. Asa Butterfield plays a small-town teen with bad habits; a move to New York to join his drug-dealer father (an excellent Ethan Hawke) is unlikely salvation.

Rating: R, for language, subject matter

Showing: Sundance Cinemas Seattle

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