In times of racial divide and political upheaval, the movies are a refuge all their own. Roger Ebert referred to films themselves as "empathy machines" in such a lovely way, I won't even try to create my own metaphor or even improve one so quaint. I simply know from watching nearly 3,000 over the course of my young life that the movies do something to your brain and it's not turn it into liquid waste. Films like Sleight, in particular, the directorial debut by J.D. Dillard who might have two more films for us within the next year, do a great job of complicating the mind in a necessary, if sometimes uncomfortable, way.
Sleight concerns Bo, played humbly and commendably by Jacob Latimore, a young street magician and part-time drug-dealer who is caring for his little sister Tina (Storm Reid) following the death of their parents. Bo and Tina live modestly in an affordable but roomy home in Los Angeles as he spends his day wowing locals and tourists by his inspiring magic tricks and his nights alongside his supplier/kingpin Angelo (Dulé Hill) going on busts or attending parties. Despite odds not always being in his favor, he appears to have a stable and reliable connection with Angelo and, once he meets Holly (Seychelle Gabriel), a local girl who gives him a tip as well as her phone-number in one of his collection jars, he is in the more-desirable position of getting by while still being a bit disillusioned.
Jacob Latimore, Seychelle Gabriel, Dulé Hill
28 April 2017
Steve's Grade: A-
Bo runs into hot-water when he's tasked to commit violent acts against a rival cocaine ring that actively operates as competition to Angelo's operation. Bo, like many, thought of selling dope as a brief stint that would supply him with enough money for him and Tina to live comfortably, and his plan to get out involves going behind Angelo's back and cutting a kilo of cocaine into smaller units to flip for extra money in his pockets. When Angelo finds out - through methods that are admittedly unclear - he violently beats Bo and tells him he needs to come up with $45,000 to repay him or he'll be killed.
Bo is not a stupid kid. He bridges the generalizations of street-smarts and book-smarts, with a personal secret about the success and wonderment behind his magic tricks, which involves a delicate balance of chemistry and scientific prowess. The magic comes second to his struggles with safety and security.
Ignoring the fact that Bo's secret is incredulous even if we're looking at kids like him in a more specific sense, his exterior and mentality remain frighteningly common amongst impoverished teens. He's a young kid trying to do what's right through partly conventional and unconventional means, all with the good intentions of getting him and Tina out of the dangerous area in which they live. A 40-hour minimum wage job won't allow him to pay for higher education, one flawed argument, nor will it even allow for basic bills to be covered, the second point often brought up. Through working numerous locations as a street magician, Bo makes a bit more than pocket-money and he impresses people, if even in the momentary. The problem is he's rarely impressed or captivated himself.
This is why Holly is such a necessity to him, and he to her as well, someone who couldn't have come at a better time for the both of them. Her parents have went through an evidently brutal divorce, one her alcoholic mother takes out on her in between her college classes (something that also isn't ever explained nor elaborated on), and meeting Bo has given her an escape, if not an ideal one. Bo needs more company than his younger sister and critical neighbor (Sasheer Zamata). The two make an electric team together when they're problem-solving an ostensibly unsolvable conundrum.
Latimore plays Bo with great conviction, instilling a quite, softspoken tone in an already somber, understated film. He's the actor we need at this time playing a character we need to show us a different, more elaborate side of an often shortchanged archetype - the poor, drug-dealing black kid. A large part of Sleight rests on the capable shoulders of Latimore, who breathes life into the film by making the character of Bo his own. He fills the large shoes at hand nicely, and forms wonderful chemistry alongside Seychelle Gabriel.
Dillard's film is not perfect. As I've stated, there are a couple of narrative issues. But when Sleightis good, it's really good, and when it's suspenseful or harrowing, it's nearly suffocating in how effective it is when tasked with creating an airtight setting. In a short 83 minutes, Latimore and Gabriel give us performances that do more than entertain within a film written with the desire to explore and illustrate just how complex the problems of poverty, drugs, and alienation are. It may not be the most original; that doesn't mean it's not necessary.