Home » At the Multiplex » Sleight
         

Sleight

Here’s a neat little surprise that came entirely out of nowhere. Sleight had a reported budget of $250,000, was shot over 16 days, features no name actors in the cast (with the debatable exceptions of Dule Hill and Cameron Esposito) and it was made by debut director/co-writer/former Bad Robot receptionist J.D. Dillard. Even weirder, this movie had backing from Blumhouse Pictures (by way of its BH Tilt indie division) and WWE Studios, which is as weird a combination as any I’ve ever heard of.

This is an odd little mishmash to come out from so far beneath the radar. And that’s a huge part of what makes it so… well, magical.

Sleight is the story of Bo (Jacob Latimore), a young man fresh out of high school, left to support himself and his little sister (Tina, played by Storm Reid) after both of their parents are dead. Bo works on the streets as a magician, and it’s clearly obvious he’s got no shortage of talent. What little cash he makes, he uses to buy drugs, which he then turns around and sells for a tidy profit. The goal, of course, is to get out of Los Angeles and out of the drug trade entirely.

(Side note: As illustrated in one clever little scene, it turns out that preternatural sleight of hand skills are quite useful for a drug dealer. Especially when racist cops come around snooping for product.)

But it turns out that getting out of the drug trade isn’t so easy. What a shock, right? To make a long story short (Too late!), Bo has to come up with a ton of money for his boss (Angelo, played by Dule Hill) or risk himself and his sister getting killed.

To get this out of the way, Bo does some truly awful things as the movie progresses. He does things that are illegal, he does things that are stupid, and he does things that leave enormous bloodstains. Yet the character remains sympathetic because everything he does is out of desperation. He’s put himself in a position with no good options, and it’s clear that he’d much rather walk away entirely if he could, which helps the character keep some sympathy. There’s also a degree of karma involved, as we watch Bo made to suffer for some ill-advised choice he made previously. Speaking of karma, Bo never commits any kind of trespass against civilians — all the really terrible shit is done to criminals who are in the drug dealing business, so there’s a potential bit of moral leeway there.

Then we have the magic angle. Specifically, the one trick Bo can do that nobody else in the world can. While that gimmick may not technically be a spoiler as it’s revealed in the first ten minutes, the reveal is so good that I don’t dare get into specifics here. Suffice to say that it demonstrates Bo’s devotion to his magic, serving as an illustration of suffering for the sake of art. Moreover, it’s just barely grounded enough in realism to serve as something fantastic without completely breaking suspension of disbelief. It’s also based enough in the character’s intelligence and persistence that it serves the climax without imploding into a deus ex machina. Beautifully done.

That said, I was peeved by one scene in which Bo is stuck in handcuffs. I couldn’t believe that this scene was played for tension. Like a magician of Bo’s established caliber couldn’t work his way out of handcuffs in two seconds? Come on.

Still, Bo’s desperation and intelligence help the story immensely. When you get right down to it, the plot is very basic with a highly straightforward development arc for its protagonist. Yet Bo’s constant internal conflict (desperation to stay alive versus compulsion to do the right thing) and his intelligence (either finding a clever solution or getting too smart for his own good) bring enough potential for surprises within those broad strokes.

The supporting cast is something similar: Beautifully done, yet ultimately hollow. One example is Holly, the love interest played by Seychelle Gabriel. The romance arc is charming, the chemistry between the actors is solid, and (without getting into spoilers) it turns out that Holly needs a family just as badly as Bo does. All of this helps to sell the characters’ speedy mutual attraction, but there are still times when her unconditional devotion strains credulity, mandated more by plot than plausible character motivation.

Another prominent case in point is Georgi (Sasheer Zamata). As a plot device, she acts as a sounding board and a voice of conscience for Bo. As a character, I couldn’t tell you who she is or why she’d take in so much incriminating evidence without batting an eye. I get that she’s Bo’s neighbor and a good family friend, but when she’s literally confronted with piles upon piles of cocaine and her first reaction isn’t dragging Bo to the cops, I feel like a bit more detail is needed.

Cameron Esposito and Frank Clem play another couple of grown-ups who serve more as plot devices than fleshed-out characters. Michael Villar and Mane Andrew play a couple of gangster stereotypes who work better as shallow comic relief than plausible human beings. Then we’ve got Tina — working as both a comic relief character and a plot device — but at least she gets in some good lines and some solid interplay with Bo.

Yet every single character still works, primarily because of the casting. Jacob Latimore serves as a fantastic leading man, with the confidence to sell himself as a legit magician and the vulnerability to sell himself as a well-intentioned teenager in over his head. This is a deeply complex and conflicted character, and so much of that works because of Latimore’s performance. Seychelle Gabriel is another real find, salvaging her character through pure force of charm. Storm Reid plays a helpless little girl such that I was honestly invested in her safety. Cameron Esposito has a kind of screen presence that makes me wish she was in more movies. Michael Villar played exactly the kind of comic relief exactly where it was needed.

Then we have Dule Hill, in the role of a drug kingpin. Hill seems to be a highly unlikely choice, and that’s kinda the point. By design, Angelo is supposed to be the kind of guy who seems inherently cool and trustworthy until he’s suddenly not. This is the only way it could be plausible for a nonviolent and well-intentioned guy like Bo to get mixed up in all of this. Unfortunately, it works a little too well. There’s something inherently charming and likeable about Hill’s screen presence, and it never quite goes away entirely, no matter how deranged and violent the character gets. That said, Hill’s best efforts are sufficiently thrilling to watch, and the character is still effectively sold as a legitimate threat. Moreover, there’s a neat little point in which it’s lightly implied that Angelo himself is only a poser who’s been able to crawl to the top through sheer force of will, which fits Hill’s performance quite nicely.

On a technical level, I was greatly impressed with the film’s style. The music is nicely atmospheric, with some neat touches in the sound design. And aside from Bo’s first date with Holly — I wasn’t particularly fond of the extreme close-up shots — there are a lot of fine choices with regards to the cuts and camera movements. What’s more, the film has a look that’s dark and firmly grounded, but without draining everything of color or making anything incomprehensible. (Certain filmmakers could certainly take a lesson or two, not that I’m naming names.)

All told, Sleight is a delightful debut from J.D. Dillard. The 90-minute runtime leaves a fair bit to be desired with regards to plot and character development, but it still packs in a lot of neat surprises and clever moments. The filmmakers sneak in some subtle and clever statements about art, race, justice, and other topics without bogging down the story or getting pretentious. Moreover, the direction is loaded with more than enough style to make the relatively simple plot more palatable, and the cast is solid enough to make even the thinnest character moments work.

If nothing else, it’s greatly impressive how much the filmmakers did with so little. I could recommend the film for that alone, but I’m mostly recommending it for being a fun and clever genre-bender that’s not quite like anything else out there. Also, independent low-budget cinema with an original and intelligent premise and a cast loaded with people of color is never a bad thing to support. Definitely give this one a look.

Leave a Reply