Monday, May 1, 2017

'Sleight' review

It has been an incredibly long road to the big screen for J.D. Dillard's Sleight, which premiered at the 2016 Sundance Film Festival. Dillard's directorial debut immediately earned rave reviews and buzz at the fest, establishing the filmmaker as a talent to watch. He has a mysterious upcoming project with Jason Blum, and he's even being considered to direct a remake of The Fly. But until this weekend, nobody had been able to see the film that caught the eye of the major studios and put Dillard on the Hollywood watchlist. Thanks to WWE Studios and Blumhouse Tilt, Sleight is finally hitting theaters across the country, with an added marketing boost from J.J. Abrams and Dillard's friends at Bad Robot. What you'll find isn't a spectacular debut, but a very interesting one, a film that displays a highly original concept from a unique directorial voice. Boosted by a terrific sense of atmosphere and a tremendous lead performance from Jacob Latimore, Sleight is worth the watch, even if it never quite pulls off any feats of cinematic wizardry.

As a high school student, Bo (Latimore) was a promising young magician with a scholarship to a prestigious university. But when his mother suddenly passed away, everything changed. Bo was forced to become the sole guardian of Tina (Storm Reid), his younger sister and the only family member he has left. Bo turns to street magic for extra cash, but his real money is made as a drug dealer working for the charismatic and violent Angelo (Dule Hill). Bo hoped that drug dealing would be a short-term gig, but he quickly finds himself embroiled in a conflict that sees him become an integral part of Angelo's organization. Meanwhile, Bo also meets a beautiful girl named Holly (Seychelle Gabriel), who has some terrible family problems of her own. As the danger increases and Bo finds himself in an increasingly terrifying situation, he'll have to make a plan to escape with Tina and Holly, starting a new life away from the circumstances that threaten to destroy everything.

As shown on the poster, Sleight has been described by many as a kind of superhero origin story, and while there are some strange fantastical elements at play here, I don't know if that description really does the film justice. In reality, it's a much more grounded film, one that deals with themes of abuse, violence, and love. Dillard limits the superheroic action to the final moments of the film, and even that never comes off as absurd or ridiculous. Sleight deals in magic and mystery, but it's mainly a film about a kid thrust into a terrible situation to survive. Whether Dillard fully manages to balance the mystical and the practical is another issue that I think is still up for debate. But my basic point is that if you're looking for a superhero movie in traditional sense of the word, you're not gonna find it here. Sleight is a different beast altogether- and it's a better movie for it.

Dillard is great at atmosphere and character, two things that are surprisingly essential to the success of a genre film. He uses the L.A. setting of Sleight to great effect, highlighting the darkness of the city in a way that recalls films like Nightcrawler. There's a noir element to this film that really works, and there are some gritty moments that manage to disturb and shock. In addition, each and every character is clearly defined, driven by clear motivations that help the film come to life. Jacob Latimore has appeared in small roles in Collateral Beauty and The Maze Runner (with a part in this summer's Detroit), but if the Hollywood studios are watching, Sleight will be his breakout role. Latimore has the ability to be both confident and vulnerable, pulling off magic tricks with a slick charisma before reacting with wide-eyed terror as the dark forces of the underworld surround him. He has great chemistry with the entire cast, and he has a strong screen presence that overwhelms some of Dillard's directorial flaws.

In addition to Latimore's star performance, the supporting crew of Sleight is fairly impressive in their own right. Dule Hill's performance as the sociopathic villain is delectably evil, drifting between smooth likability and all-out nastiness with ease. Seychelle Gabriel is also a star in the making, bringing depth and pathos to what could be a typical girlfriend role. Latimore and Gabriel are believable as a couple, and their characters' love for each other is palpable. Sleight is a surprisingly character-driven movie, one that relies on the audience's connection to the flawed individuals at the center of the story. And with the strong turns from Latimore, Hill, and Gabriel, that direction stands as a true asset.

Unfortunately, Dillard's narrative is lacking at times, and his focus on characters doesn't always pan out. There's a moral ambiguity to the main story in Sleight that Dillard opts to never explore, which serves to the detriment of the final product. Bo is willing to do everything and anything to make life better for his sister- at what point does that make him an anti-hero? In addition, Sleight runs a relatively short 90 minutes but manages to feel much longer, saddled with a few twists and subplots that feel extraneous to the overall trajectory of the film. Dillard manages to give the story a simple, yet effective set of stakes, but the story runs out of gas towards the end. The balance between the two contrasting elements never quite pans out, and the conclusion isn't as satisfying as it should be.

The result is something entertaining, but generally less than memorable, an ambitiously original genre project that falls just short of B-movie greatness. Mainly, Sleight serves as a strong introduction to two individuals who could deliver brilliant work in the future- Jacob Latimore and J.D. Dillard. Latimore has talent for days, and if Dillard finds the right project, I have no doubt that he will absolutely knock it out of the park. If their careers pan out, Sleight will be looked back on as an underrated gem, a film that introduced us to two stars who made an impact on the industry. If not, it'll still work as a unique little genre movie that takes quite a few risks. Sleight is another imperfect film in a year that has been filled with them, but if the concept interests you, it's worth a look.

THE FINAL GRADE:  B-                                             (6.9/10)

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