Film Review – Sleight
As a movie lover, the best feeling one could have is being caught off guard. When one watches many films over the years, you start noticing patterns, clichés, and tropes emerge. But when a picture can spin something familiar and make it feel fresh, the result can be relieving, rewarding, and even inspiring. The story within Sleight (2016) is not exactly new – in fact many of the elements in it are actually well worn. But J.D. Dillard (director/co-writer) and Alex Theurer (co-writer) craft it from such a unique perspective that it felt like I was watching all of them for the first time. I wouldn’t go so far as to say it’s a great film, but it’s a darn good one, and deserves to be seen by a larger audience.
What makes Sleight so interesting is that it’s hard to peg down. Part noir and part sci-fi thriller, I found myself trying to figure out what kind of movie it was early on, and that is a good thing. Dillard and Theurer’s narrative tells the story of a young kid stuck in a bad situation. One of the defining aspects of noir is desperation: characters wanting something so badly that they’ll go to any lengths to achieve it. That’s what happens with our protagonist, Bo (Jacob Latimore). Bo is a young street magician trying to make his way in Los Angeles. We learn that he is a scientific wunderkind, winning awards for his engineering prowess. However, that potential gets sidetracked with the death of both of his parents, leaving him to tend for himself and his younger sister, Tina (Storm Reid). The only help Bo gets is from his next door neighbor (Sasheer Zamata).
Bo tries to make ends meet by performing his magic, but the money doesn’t come fast enough. As a means to keep food on the table and a roof over their heads, Bo works as a delivery boy for the small time drug dealer, Angelo (Dulé Hill). As Bo’s intelligence and efficiency shows itself, the more Angelo forces him to take dangerous jobs. It’s the classic story of getting in too deep. When you need money right away, you do whatever is necessary, but the further you dive into the criminal underworld, the harder it is to get out. Dulé Hill – whom I remember from the television shows The West Wing and Psych – doesn’t really come off as that intimidating a figure. He’s almost too suave and sophisticated to play such a loathsome character. But the writing compliments him by intensifying the positions Angelo puts Bo in. The most tension comes when Angelo forces Bo to inflict a punishment on a rival drug dealer. The writing, direction, and acting (especially the reactions from Jacob Latimore) tell us all we need to know about the kind of person Angelo is.
The main plot is told fairly straightforward, with Bo trying to get out of his predicament. Dillard’s direction has a very energetic tone without being overbearing. Even when he elects to go for more stylized sequences, it has a grounded, gritty aesthetic. He never loses sight with his directorial choices either – everything benefits Bo’s central motivation. Yes, Bo works for a criminal, and he does some very bad things. From an outsider’s perspective, someone might look at him and automatically tag him the wrong way. But Dillard never glorifies these acts. He goes deeper, allowing us to see Bo as a developed character instead of a stereotype. We understand that Bo is placed under tremendous pressure, as a person in his position would be. A nighttime talk with his girlfriend Holly (Seychelle Gabriel) reveals Bo’s true morality and his guilt over the things he has done, and what he needs to do to set things right.
What that is will either make or break an audience. Most of what I described so far fall into the noir/thriller side of Sleight. In the third act, things start to turn toward the sci-fi category. Admittedly, much of what happens will take some stretching of believability. I won’t describe what Bo does, because even I had to turn my head and squint my eyes a bit to not call shenanigans on this particular choice. But I will say that Dillard and Theurer do enough to reinforce this notion throughout the plot. It’s not as though it came out of nowhere and blindsided us. Dillard and Theurer constantly build up to it, so that when it does happen we may be surprised, but we can see how the narrative’s trajectory got us to that point. Within this “universe,” the choice is acceptable despite how ridiculous it may be because the characters are developed well enough for us to see how they could pull off such a stunt.
In a time where big budget blockbusters dominate the mainstream, here is a picture that keeps up with the big boys and in some ways surpasses them. When you don’t have enough money to clog the screen with explosions and CGI effects, you’re left with characters, dialogue, and plotting. It’s the little details that count, and Sleight is a strong example of that.