Adam Leon’s 2012 debut, Gimme the Loot, showed a disarming lightness of touch in its observation of a pair of teenage Bronx graffitists on a mission to pull off a street-art coup. His equally winsome follow-up, Tramps, throws together two more seemingly mismatched youths on another somewhat delinquent quest, this time focusing on the delicate process by which an unplanned partnership blossoms from spiky banter into trust and incipient romance. There’s never a false note in the performances of Callum Turner and Grace Van Patten, who make ideal accomplices for the talented writer-director.
Similar to Gimme the Loot, the new film is a small-scale work that owes its charm to the freshness, relaxed intimacy and unforced humor of its character interplay, and to the warm feel for the environments through which they move, whether it’s densely populated Brooklyn and Queens or the affluent green suburbs of Westchester. Those qualities should steer the indie production into a modest theatrical niche before it lands on smaller screens.
Danny (Turner) lives in Queens with his Polish mother (Mariola Mlekicki), who runs a horse race betting operation out of her front room. A good kid working at a fast food joint while nurturing aspirations to become a chef, he’s reluctant to get involved when his older brother Darren (Michal Vondel) calls from an Atlantic City lockup, asking Danny to fill in for him on a job of dubious legality. Forced by his tough mother to comply, Danny is instructed to liaise with a driver and pick up a briefcase, its contents unknown, to be exchanged with a woman on a train station platform, identifiable by her green handbag.
True to the way such exchanges invariably unravel in movies, Danny spots the wrong green bag and makes the swap without its distracted owner noticing, only realizing his mistake as his train pulls out of the station.
His assigned driver on the job is Ellie (Van Patten), who agrees to participate because she’s broke, and because it’s preferable to sleeping with Scott (Mike Birbiglia), the schlubby Brooklyn fixer arranging the exchange in league with the shadier and more volatile Jimmy (Louis Cancelmi). Ellie needs cash to get back to Pittsburgh, possibly to break up with her loser boyfriend. When Danny screws up his part of the assignment, she tries, unsuccessfully, to walk away.
The movie requires some suspension of disbelief by having the unwitting accomplices set off to retrieve the briefcase without ever wondering if the woman from the station might have turned it in. The same goes for the architects of the deal. But the world of Leon’s films is graced with such endearing innocence — even the criminal types are relatively benign — that you go with it.
That entails following Danny and Ellie as they chase the missing briefcase to a wealthy enclave outside New York City. They camp out overnight in a pool house in the first leg of a twisty journey that sets off increasing alarm bells with Scott, Jimmy and Darren, the latter now back home and determined not to forfeit his cut of the deal.
Of course, the briefcase and its contents are merely the catalyst in a movie that’s all about the subtle ways in which barriers are broken down between nerdy, eager-to-please Danny and surly, street-smart Ellie, both of whom color the truth about themselves.
While Leon exhibits a real taste for the frolicsome nature of the classic light-hearted crime caper, he’s also primarily a quirky humanist, zeroing in on the quiet moments when preconceptions are proven wrong and feelings begin to shift. A scene in which Ellie’s gaze deepens as she registers the compassion in a casual remark made by Danny is just gorgeous. Ellie clearly isn’t accustomed to decent guys, and Danny’s genuineness causes her not only to reconsider him but to re-evaluate herself and her own possibilities, feeding one of the movie’s sweetest emotional undercurrents. And unlike many other films traveling through neighborhoods that span the income spectrum, observations about wealth inequality and limited opportunity are embedded seamlessly rather than stated, visible also in the varying colors and textures of Ashley Connor’s limpid camerawork.
In many ways, Tramps is a circuitous road movie, its rhythms shaped by lovely use of music — including Nicholas Britell’s spare score and an eclectic parcel of tunes, from traditional folk to trippy indie electronica to blues and rockabilly — and lots of transport sequences, involving cars, trains, buses, bicycles. There’s also a nice walking-and-talking vibe to the key transitional scenes, given lively physicality by the pairing of Ellie’s brisk trot with Danny’s spindly gait, like a baby gazelle still finding his footing around her.
It’s the faultless performances that make the film so captivating. Among the supporting cast, Birbiglia, Vondel and Cancelmi have an amusing, scrappy rapport, while Margaret Colin adds her customary elegance to a tart scene near the end in which the briefcase’s contents are finally disclosed, and with them a bittersweet statement on the durability of love. But as the two people preparing to test that durability, the delightful Turner and Van Patten are the tender heart of the movie, with Danny’s awkward openness and Ellie’s guarded vulnerability forming a perfect union. Tramps should boost both actors on the casting radar.
Production companies: Animal Kingdom, Beachside, Rooks Nest Entertainment
Cast: Callum Turner, Grace Van Patten, Mike Birbiglia, Michal Vondel, Louis Cancelmi, Margaret Colin, Mariola Mleckicki
Director-screenwriter: Adam Leon
Producers: Joshua Astrachan, David Kaplan, Andrea Roa, Jamund Washington
Executive producers: Frederick W. Green, Michael B. Clark, Alex Turtletaub, Julia Godzinskaya, Sophie Vickers, Michael Sackler
Director of photography: Ashley Connor
Production designer: Erin Magill
Costume designer: Brooke Bennett
Music: Nicholas Britell
Editors: Sara Shaw, Morgan Faust
Casting: Susan Shopmaker
Venue: Toronto International Film Festival (Contemporary World Cinema)
Sales: UTA Independent Film Group, WestEnd Films