Operating with an impressive storytelling economy, yet managing to spin a tale that takes its protagonists from the Bronx to Westchester and back again, writer/director Adam Leon’s second feature film, “Tramps,” is something of a marvel to watch unfold. However, its multiple charms are so sly, the performances so perfectly unflashy, you’ll likely be surprised at how affecting it becomes in its final stages. It’s a heist movie with a Macguffin in the middle, it’s a romance where risk is the reward, and it’s a must-see movie that doesn’t wear its heart on its sleeve, so much as carry it protectively in its pocket, though you can see it beating through the fabric.
Danny (Callum Turner) may know how to cook, and run the casual off-track-betting parlour for the neighborhood gamblers in his mother’s living room, but at everything else in life he’s all elbows. When his brother Darren (Michal Vondel) calls him from jail, and asks to fill in for him on a shady deal, Danny is the kind of guy who writes down the instructions for the criminal gig. He wants to get it right, and he wants to help his brother, even if somewhat reluctantly. But of course, what should be a straightforward job doesn’t wind up going according to plan.
The enterprise involves the sort of convoluted series of steps that only low-level hustlers could dream up, pretending to be a bigger deal than they are. Certainly, Ellie (Grace Van Patten) can see the schlubs behind everything — including Scott (Mike Birbiglia) and Jimmy (Louis Cancelmi) — for what they are (not much), but needing money for a fresh start away from Pittsburgh and her past, she’s roped into the situation, initially acting as the driver to take Danny to the drop. What’s supposed to be a simple briefcase trade-off becomes bungled, leaving Danny and Ellie left to team up and make things right. And this means leaving the Bronx and heading to Westchester to find the briefcase that’s managed to get lost, and of course, find each other.
However, if you think this is just another riff on “Before Sunrise,” guess again. While Danny and Ellie do wind up spending an evening together, tenderness is not on the table. At least not initially. Though they eat together in a pub, their meagre resources means ordering appetizers or off the kids’ menu. A stroll through a nighttime fair finds them looking at everyone else having fun, rather than joining in themselves. These aren’t two people in Europe who happen to bump into each other, but two kids who can hardly scrape by on their own, forced by circumstance to spend time together. But it’s the next day, raiding the closets in a posh home for some clothes, where it becomes clear that these characters have bigger things than love on the brain. For Ellie, she’s trying to hang onto to a dream that seems to have slipped away at some point. Trying on one beautiful dress after another, as Danny cleans himself up in the bathroom, it’s a glimpse at a future she perhaps imagined once, a hope that eroded with the reality of coming up against life’s hard edges. But in that moment, it seems to be just enough to keep that flicker alive, to realize that sometimes the dice can roll in your favor.
Danny on the other has his future as a chef mapped out, but what intrigues him about the attractive, assertive girl he’s spending time with, is that he has no idea what to make of her. “You’re a tough nut to crack” and “I’m kind of scared of you” he says in genuine awe at various points to Ellie, but in each other, they have the qualities the other lacks. Ellie has the spine and pragmatism that Danny needs to stay focused, while Danny is the good-hearted optimist Ellie thought didn’t really exist. But both are hobbled by the hesitancy of youth, the uncertainty of their feelings, and the fear of being hurt. And Leon’s lovely narrative touch is not to betray that honesty with artificial, grand romantic gestures, but finds something so much more authentic and moving in a brief moment when both let their guards their down, and just the possibility of something special is more than enough.
In the lead roles, Turner and Patten turn in genuine, unaffected, fully realized performances, playing different types of very sensitive adolescents. And it speaks to the power of Leon’s writing that even though Danny and Ellie are at the same point in their lives, their individual backgrounds and experience makes them distinct. And in Turner and Patten he has two young actors who help bridge the connection that will be so vital for the film’s conclusion that leaves you beaming in a realness that feels sweet, without a false note in it.
Featuring a soundtrack that actually seems like it was lifted from the streets and bodegas of New York City (blues, afrobeat, and more all mix and mingle) rather than curated by a music supervisor in an office, Leon leaves no element untouched in his approach to render a vibrant, lived in world for his film. And one scene, in which a character tries to give someone the slip by jumping on a city bus only for it to backfire because traffic can sometimes move slower than pedestrians, is an example of Leon’s desire to sidestep conventions and contrivances.
In the end, what happens to the briefcase and what the contents are, doesn’t really matter, and in a self-aware touch, even the intended recipient winds up remarking how needlessly complicated everything turned out. But what “Tramps” asserts in its touching way, is that sometimes the right person isn’t someone who will guide you out of the chaos, but who has their own perfectly compatible mess to add to yours. [B+]