'Dayveon': Film Review | Sundance 2017

Dayveon Sundance Still 1 - Publicity - H 2017
Courtesy of Sundance

Dayveon Sundance Still 1 - Publicity - H 2017

Impressive in places, but marbled with cliches.

Multihyphenate Amman Abbasi, a young filmmaker from Little Rock, Arkansas, crafts here a study of gang culture in an unusual rural setting, starring non-professional actors and found settings.

Shot in Wrightsville, Arkansas, with a cast of non-professionals, young writer-producer-director-composer Amman Abbasi’s feature debut offers an intensely sincere coming-of-age story that pivots around one adolescent’s initiation into gang life. Although the project has a documentary air, thanks to workshop time spent with real gang members and a strong, authentic sense of place, the picture’s funky-retro 4:3 ratio, occasional bursts of highly stylized editing and striking use of dreamy avant-garde music by Abbasi himself lend the proceedings a sharp art house edge. With support from executive producers such as James Schamus, Lisa Muskat and David Gordon Green (whose debut George Washington casts a long shadow here), it’s no surprise the film has secured a coveted spot in the Sundance lineup. However, rough edges like the somewhat pat script and sketchy production values may keep Dayveon from progressing much further beyond the festival circuit.

Dayveon is a 13-year-old boy (played by stolid newcomer Devin Blackmon), who lives with his older sister Kim (Chasity Moore), her boyfriend Bryan (Dontrell Bright) and their 3-year-old son (adorable Lachion Buckingham Jr.). Dayveon’s older brother Trevor was killed not too long ago in a gang-related shooting, a tragedy that drove their mother mad, and still haunts Dayveon deeply. In a striking opening montage, Dayveon is seen from behind, bicycling down the rolling, forest-lined roads as his voiceover intones about the stupidity of everything — trees, rocks, his own hands and so on — a sign of his depressed state.

Clearly, there isn’t a lot for kids to do in this sleepy, Southern community apart from skipping stones on the lake, gaming, smoking dope and updating one’s Facebook status. Perhaps almost out of boredom but maybe mostly a longing to have a connection with his brother and other young men, Dayveon allows himself to be “jumped in” — an initiation that involves a mild beating — to the local gang of Bloods, a small troop of ruffians that include corn-rowed twentysomething Mook (Lachion Buckingham, also one of the film’s producers) and his sidekick Country (Marquell Manning), who has quiet aspirations to get work with a local farmer. Dayveon connects particularly with fellow gang-member Brayden (lanky Kordell “KD” Johnson), a kid just a little older than Dayveon, who has already in his short life been shot in the leg (the scar he shows off is a real gunshot wound, per the film’s press notes).

Before long, the hijinks and camaraderie takes a dark turn when Mook and Country dupe Dayveon and Brayden into coming along to an armed robbery where shots are fired and someone gets hurt. Brayden and Dayveon swear not to get involved any further, but Dayveon turns away from his brother-in-law Bryan’s offer of emotional support. He hasn’t the emotional fortitude to resist when Mook comes calling again, offering him a share of the spoils from the last robbery and another chance to prove his masculinity.

It’s around this point that the film goes off the rails with an all-too-predictable ironic twist of fate that’s resolved weakly later on at the end. Nevertheless, this narrative nadir is succeeded in short order by the film’s most arresting sequence, a montage showing Dayveon and Mook celebrating at a nightclub where girls twerk for the men’s amusement, much alcohol is consumed and colored lights play over their bodies in a blur of edits.

All the while, Abbasi’s drifty, droning composition (it’s no surprise to read that he’s collaborated with Icelandic beat combo Sigur Ros), arranged and performed by Amos Cochran, plays out, offering a spacey counterpoint to the imagery. Like the recent award-winner Moonlight, another story about young black men wrestling with their male identity in the South, Dayveon takes a refreshing break from the hip-hop soundtrack one would usually expect from the milieu depicted, creating an unexpectedly ethereal atmosphere. Similarly, the disconnection in other key scenes between the dialogue track and the images adds atmosphere. Another nice touch is the way bees dance through the story, either as single insects that buzz about or as a menacing collective hive that's attached itself to a tree just outside the backdoor of Dayveon's house, always threatening violence even if a sting means death to the individual bug.

Sadly, these intriguing formal noodlings can’t disguise the cliches in the script. Even so, it’s clear that Abbasi has talent and ambition, and with help and guidance from a good script editor he could go much further in filmmaking beyond Little Rock, his hometown.

Production companies: A Symbolic Exchange, Salem Street Entertainment, Mama Bear presentation in association with Meridian Entertainment of a Rough House Pictures / Muskat Filmed Properties / Cximple production
Cast: Devin BlackmonKordell “KD” Johnson, Dontrell Bright, Chasity Moore, Lachion Buckingham, Marquell Manning
Director: Amman Abbasi
Screenwriters: Amman Abbasi, Steven Reneau
Producers: Amman AbbasiLachion Buckingham, Alexander Uhlmann
Executive producers: David Gordon Green, Jody Hill, Danny McBride, Brandon James, Lisa Muskat, James Schamus, Joe Pirro, Todd Remis, Isaiah Smallman, Barlow Jacobs
Director of photography: Dustin Lane
Costume designer: Tiffany Barry
Editor: Dominic LaPerriere
Music: Amman Abbasi
Casting: John Williams, Karmen Leech
Sales: Visit Films
No rating, 75 minutes