Screenwriters Kenya Barris and Tracy Oliver know how to get the party started and keep it lively.
“Sleight” is an ambitious genre mash-up about a young street magician that pulls off a nifty bit of trickery itself.
With his debut feature, director and co-writer J.D. Dillard deftly mixes intimate sci-fi thrills with dramatic, big-city dangers. The combination that kept entering my mind as I watched it was “Chronicle” meets “Dope,” both in terms of its substance and what it similarly achieves with a minimal budget. “Sleight” also has been described frequently as a superhero origin story—and sure, you could look at it that way, in that it’s about a young man growing up, discovering the full breadth of his powers and (hopefully) using them for good.
But what might be the most dazzling feat of all is the lead performance from Jacob Latimore as Bo, a promising young man who puts his dreams on hold and starts selling drugs to support his little sister (Storm Reid) after their mother’s death. Glimmers of his charisma were visible in last year’s laughably self-serious ensemble drama “Collateral Beauty.” Here, with stronger writing and a more focused approach, Latimore is free to shine. He has a magnetic screen presence mixed with a down-to-Earth directness. And while he’s got swagger for days, he’s just as compelling when his character is quietly contemplating his next move.
“Sleight,” which Dillard co-wrote with Alex Theurer, efficiently establishes its world within a very specific Los Angeles setting. A voicemail recording and a glance around Bo’s bedroom let us know he was once an accomplished student with a bright future in electrical engineering. Now, he’s wowing tourists on the streets with card and coin tricks by day and working as a gofer for would-be, big-time drug dealer Angelo (Dulé Hill) by night. The role is quite a departure for Hill, who’s mostly played nice guys; here, he can be frighteningly charming, but increasingly he’s just plain frightening.
At first, Bo sells a little bit here and there to artists and dabbling college kids. Some coke, some Molly. He works the clubs. He gathers intel. But when Angelo realizes another drug dealer is brazenly moving in on his turf, he calls on Bo—whom he considers a protégé—to take part in the kind of violent activity that’s totally antithetical to Bo’s nature.
In the tradition of slow-burning dramas like “A Simple Plan,” “Sleight” explores what happens when an ordinary person gets caught up in extraordinary circumstances, and the lengths to which he’ll go to keep himself from going under. Dillard doesn’t overdramatize this conundrum; he doesn’t need to. You can easily imagine how one bad decision could lead to another and then another, even as you convince yourself that you’re doing it all for the right reasons. And Dillard increases tension by keeping the action simple but escalating the pacing at a steady clip.
The deeper Bo gets, the more his sense of isolation becomes palpable. Because—for a while, at least—he can’t tell anyone the secret behind his magical powers. That includes his inquisitive sister, Tina, with whom he has a warm rapport; his vivacious and supportive girlfriend, Holly (Seychelle Gabriel), whom he met while performing in L.A.’s charming Larchmont shopping district; and his across-the-way neighbor, Georgi (Sasheer Zamata of “Saturday Night Live”), who serves as an auntie figure to the family and Bo’s much-needed voice of reason.
Those hidden abilities come in handy—no pun intended—when it’s finally time for Bo to confront Angelo and seize control of his life. Ironically, though, as Bo gets stronger, the film gets weaker; when the action gets bigger, the emotions feel smaller. Dillard was wise not to try and pull off anything too massive or spectacular from an effects perspective on an indie budget, but what he did come up with for his climactic conclusion feels rushed.
Still, it’s an auspicious debut from this up-and-coming filmmaker, who once worked as a receptionist for J.J. Abrams’ production company, Bad Robot. He surely has many more tricks up his sleeve.