An opening line can make or break a movie, but there are times when a clunker shouldn't be held against an otherwise sweet, well-observed picture. Shari Springer Berman and Robert Pulcini's Ten Thousand Saints starts with a dud, rendered in voiceover: "I've heard people say that life is like a river, and we're all just tiny minnows struggling through the freeze, the thaw, and the flow." But once all that minnow business is out of the way, this adaptation of Eleanor Henderson's 2011 novel starts gaining quiet momentum.
Jude (Asa Butterfield) is a hippie kid growing up in Vermont, having been raised mostly by his mom (Julianne Nicholson): His charming but irresponsible dad, Les (Ethan Hawke), took off years ago to start a new life in New York as a pot dealer. After Jude's best friend, Teddy (Avan Jogia), dies of a drug overdose, Jude moves to the city to live with his dad, and begins an unsteady friendship with sophisticated, enigmatic Eliza (Hailee Steinfeld), whom he feels is the strongest remaining link to his lost friend. (She entered his life the very night Teddy died.) The complication — or, rather, one of many complications in this story about tangled family relationships — is that Eliza is Les' sort-of stepdaughter, and Jude, as the abandoned kid, resents her even as he's drawn to her.
There's a lot going on in Ten Thousand Saints, and because there are so many family-relationship arrows pointing every which way, some of the interpersonal connections aren't as vivid as they could be. Still, the movie has a lilting, generous spirit: Springer Berman and Pulcini, the filmmaking team behind the 2003 American Splendor, have a feel for human eccentricities and weaknesses, and they know how to draw the best from their casts. Steinfeld is lovely, and sometimes heartrending, as a young woman whose independent swagger masks swirls of uncertainty. And Hawke, who becomes a better actor with each passing year, is marvelous as the maddening, free spirit dad who nevertheless has a knack for keeping the people around him knitted together, even when stress, resentment, and misunderstandings threaten to tear them apart.
In Hawke's most touching scene, Les tells Jude — who was adopted — about the night he and Jude's mother sat at the hospital, waiting for him to be born. Les is one of those affably magnetic guys with catfishy facial hair — he gets by on charm rather than good grooming, and though he's good at heart, he's also a bit of a salesman. But his eyes soften as he talks about cradling Jude for the first time, and about the overwhelming protectiveness he felt: "You were so little, like a rabbit or something." Moments like those hold Ten Thousand Saints together. If life is a river, at least we've got some reassurance that there's tenderness around every bend.