CANNES – Does it sound patronizing to call a slice-of-life film about teenage Bronx graffiti artists adorable? It’s not meant to. Writer-director Adam Leon’s debut feature, Gimme the Loot, is a scrappy, funny, warmly observed delight from start to finish. Seen in March at South By Southwest (where it won the Narrative Grand Jury Prize), and New Directors/New Films in New York the following month, this no-budget charmer takes its international bow in Un Certain Regard at Cannes. Going out in the U.S. via Sundance Selects, it should please indie film fans while fueling industry interest to see what the talented Leon does next.
A 1980s local-access cable clip shows graffiti artists boasting of “bombing the apple” – painting their signature tags on the giant apple that appears at Shea Stadium whenever beloved baseball team The Mets scores a home run. Nobody has achieved this rare feat in the 20 years since. But Malcolm (Ty Hickson) and Sofia (Tashiana Washington), two teens eager to establish themselves as street-art legends, are determined to change that by tagging the apple at Citi Field, the Mets’ new home since 2009. Driving them is their rivalry with the Woodside King Crew (WKC), a bunch of punks from Queens who stepped on their turf and sabotaged their work.
The agreeably loosey-goosey action of Leon’s script tracks Sofia and Malcolm (aka “Shakes”) as they strategize, collect paint supplies and hustle to raise the $500 needed to grease the palm of their Citi Field liaison. This involves shoplifting, petty theft, swindling a few bags of weed out of a local dealer to sell, and an attempted break-in – regular amateur hoodlum terrain.
However, despite Malcolm’s occasional displays of swaggering attitude, and the far tougher, smart-mouthed Sofia’s more aggressive stance, what’s most refreshing about Leon’s film is the relative innocence of these kids. He’s helped immeasurably by Hickson and Washington, the two key members of a non-pro cast, who have infectious natural chemistry and a flirty, bantering friction that endears them to the audience without getting cute.
A detour to the apartment of a comely young white stoner, Ginnie (Zoe Lescaze), provides a promise of sexual distraction for Malcolm. But it results mainly in the loss of his hi-tops, leaving him to pad around town in socks for much of the film. In this as in most of the hapless central duo’s endeavors, there are more setbacks than successes.
There’s an amusing caper feel to the action, which takes place over two hot summer days and displays a real feel for New York City adolescent life within a specific milieu. A scene in which Ginnie takes a dip in a “ghetto swimming pool” – actually, a rooftop water tank – is a wonderful bit of local color.
Malcolm and Sofia are foiled or ripped off at every turn, placing them in gently comic terms as part of a chain of low-level criminality that extends to plucky junior kids stealing Sofia’s bicycle. In one stinging humiliation, she not only gets mugged but also has her T-shirt tagged by the WKC crew. Yet there’s a lovely resilience in Malcolm and Sofia, and a lot of sweet ambiguity in their relationship. The disarming final scenes shift our view of them both – particularly Malcolm – squarely back to ordinary adolescent territory, with a reminder that no matter how much wannabe outlaw activity this pair throw themselves into, they’re still basically kids.
Characters like the flaky tease Ginnie or a thuggish-looking criminal named Champion (Meeko), with a face covered in tattoos, are regarded with equal affection by the writer-director, whose lightness of touch is his most winning asset.
Shot in limber, unfussy style by Jonathan Miller, the film is laced with glimpses of neighborhood basketball games, black-market operations, drug deals and underground graffitist networks, which add to the overall texture, authenticity and energy. Lovely establishing shots of the expansive rooftop cityscape hint at the vastness and inaccessibility of the world beyond these kids’ immediate domain.
While the setting is contemporary, Gimme the Loot is clearly a conscious throwback to the era and subculture documented by Charlie Ahearn in 1983 in Wild Style. Leon has said that he was influenced by Morris Engel, Ruth Orkin and Ray Ashley’s 1953 film Little Fugitive, also shot in the streets with untrained actors, and by ‘70s comedies like Uptown Saturday Night.
Sprinkled in amongst Nicholas Britell’s score is a zesty selection of eclectic music choices that eschew the obvious hip-hop route in favor of 1950s and ‘60s R&B and jazz, contemporary bluegrass and a splash of gospel, ending with Marion Williams’ fabulous cover of “I Shall be Released.” There’s definitely a distinctive personality in evidence behind this rough-edged film, and that’s never a bad thing.
Venue: Cannes Film Festival (Un Certain Regard; Sundance Selects)
Production companies: Seven For Ten Productions, in association with Flagstone Features, D.O.T. Pictures, Badminton Stamps Films
Cast: Tashiana Washington, Ty Hickson, Zoe Lescaze, Sam Soghor, Meeko
Director-screenwriter: Adam Leon
Producers: Natalie Difford, Dominic Buchanan, Jamund Washington
Director of photography: Jonathan Miller
Production designers: Sammy Lisenco, Katie Hickman
Music: Nicholas Britell
Editor: Morgan Faust
Sales: Submarine Entertainment
No rating, 79 minutes