“Anyone can learn a trick, but doing something that no one else is willing to do makes you a magician. I can do what no one else can,” Bo (Jacob Latimore) attests in a critical moment of confession, avowing his commitment to achieving the extraordinary in “Sleight.” It’s a line that wouldn’t feel out of place in Christopher Nolan’s “The Prestige,” as Christian Bale’s thaumaturge pledges similar sacrifices to his craft at all costs. Both characters are obsessive, keep secrets, and lead ruinous double lives, and while “Sleight” is ultimately a much smaller, less impressive beast, it still has plenty of intrigue and allure. Chameleonic and bold, the dramatic thriller is a unique blend of styles and ideas — that one-of-a-kind spot where L.A. street magic, legerdemain, science fiction, romance, drug dealing gang bangers, and limited socio-economic opportunities intersect.
The movie opens with touches of light and darkness — the unfortunate circumstances of the film’s protagonist slowly come into focus while the audience, both watching and participating in the movie, become fascinated by his prestidigitation talents. A gifted, but sensitive young adult, a Houdini enthusiast and illusionist, Bo presents a veneer of a handsome, hip street performer but struggles inside and strains to make ends meet. Having had to recently turn down a scholarship to college, the trickster grapples with recent events thrust upon him that are only briefly hinted at in a quick voicemail — he’s been forced to become a single parent and raise his young sister Tina (Storm Reid). The closest thing to a real parent is an empathetic neighbor named Georgi (Sasheer Zamata), who keeps watch over the young family when she can.
To supplement his meager, street performing income, Bo chooses to deal drugs for the ruthless local drug dealer, Angelo (Dulé Hill), and his unsavory crew. Bo’s sleight of hand and slippery maneuvering make him a big asset to Angelo’s posse, but as rival drug trafficking tensions rise, the dangers of this trade become sobering. Yet it isn’t until Bo meets Holly (Seychelle Gabriel), a self-reliant young woman about to start college, that the ugliness of his occupation comes into full perspective. And as the pair become mutually enamored, Holly too realizes she deserves better than the life of her drunken and abusive mother. Bo is cocky when on the streets impressing girls with hocus pocus, but a little clueless when it comes to wooing the already-impressed Holly, and it’s perhaps these adolescent contradictions that compel him to make some amateur, but crucial mistakes with Angelo’s business. When events are set in motion that turn the thriller into ticking bomb overdrive, Bo has to test the physical limits of his powers in order to save his makeshift family. And when “Sleight” finally lets its hero lose, and the genre elements really reveal themselves, the picture becomes ultra dynamic in its energy and tension.
The feature-length debut of J.D. Dillard, a music video director/producer, screenwriter, and one-time Bad Robot receptionist (who has a Bad Robot/Paramount development deal too, so more to come), “Sleight” is imaginative and refreshing as it shape-shifts effortlessly through familiar narrative tropes and invents something unexpected and unique. Blurring together coming of age notes, the tenor of urban dramas, and the gritty milieu of drug-peddling stories, also buzzing throughout the DNA of the movie is the mysterious elements that power Bo’s magnetic sleight of hand.
Co-penned with writing partner Alex Theurer (their breakout script “The Death of John Archer Newman” was featured on the Hit List, an industry survey not unlike the Black List), if there’s a core weakness to “Sleight,” it’s that its — forgive the pun, sorry — a bit slight, subtext free, and not really about anything other than its surface story. The dialogue can be on the nose, and it doesn’t really have anything deep to say about a young man trying to overcome his circumstances and recover from his mistakes in an unforgiving world, other than it’s tough.
Still, “Sleight” manages to engage despite a fairly simple narrative. It never collapses under the weight of its many genre appendages, assisted by crisp, night-light-streaked cinematography from Edward Wu and a pulsing and propulsive electro guitar score by Charles Scott IV that wouldn’t sound of out place on an early M83 album.
Perhaps more high-concept genre calling card than the greatest story ever told, “Sleight” still manages to dazzle in the crucial key moments when Bo’s super-charged revenge borders on superhero vigilantism. One could see the film as akin to “Chronicle” or the year-one origin-story of a stripped down Miles Morales “Spider-Man” movie, before he actually transforms into a hero. In fact, in its closing moments, “Sleight” almost pulls a Marvel, teasing even more luminous powers that have yet to be fully explored. There’s even some notes that feel similar to “Attack The Block,” another picture that mixed coming of age beats with science fiction rhythms. But sequels likely won’t come — it’s not that kind of movie — nor will it likely have the crossover appeal of the aforementioned Josh Trank film. But it’s arguably as creative and resourceful with its limited budget and at the very least; even if “Sleight” doesn’t buzz your tower as much as it could, it’s still compelling and worthwhile. Dillard may not yet be the new Nolan, but he is one to watch, and we’re likely just seeing the nascent beginnings of a promising genre-bending career. [B]
This is a reprint of our review of “Sleight,” originally run during the 2016 Sundance Film Festival. The film opens wide today.