‘Deidra & Laney Rob a Train’: Film Review | Sundance 2017

Deidra & Laney Rob a Train -Still 2-H 2017
Courtesy of Sundance
A smart, sparky YA caper.

Teen siblings fast-track a solution to their family’s financial woes in director Sydney Freeland’s Idaho-set comedy.

Girls just wanna have fun and shore up their college fund, while committing a bit of larceny, in Deidra & Laney Rob a Train. With a dash of grit and a healthy dose of Disney Channel-esque pep, the sophomore feature by director Sydney Freeland spins around two terrifically engaging big-screen newcomers. Ashleigh Murray and Rachel Crow bring a convincing sibling chemistry to the title roles, high-schoolers who find themselves in charge of a debt-ridden household. The breezy, exceptionally well-paced feature premiered in the Next section at Sundance and is scheduled for a worldwide Netflix launch on March 17. 

Working from a snappy but never snarky screenplay by first-timer Shelby Farrell, helmer Freeland (Drunktown’s Finest) maintains a strain-free upbeat energy yet keeps the action rooted in a strong sense of place and class. The story was shot in Utah but set in Idaho, where the Tanners’ modest house sits within shouting distance of grain elevators and a procession of slow-moving freight trains. The latter, with their consumer-goodies cargo, prove all too ready for low-key plundering once the thieving sister act kicks into gear. 

Their goofy deadbeat dad, Chet (David Sullivan), has a record, but the Tanner girls have never before considered crime as an option. High school senior Deidra (Murray, of the new CW series Riverdale) is a smart cookie with a thriving cottage industry in homework help for her less-gifted classmates. Sweet-tempered Laney, played by Crow (who leads the voice cast of the Netflix animated series Home: Adventures with Tip & Oh), goes along with the flow, suffering from a classic case of middle-child-itis

Then their mother, Marigold (Danielle Nicolet), lands in jail, under circumstances that, like most of the events in the film, are characterized by a mild outlandishness that places them somewhere between satire and spoof. Mom’s on-the-job meltdown prompts electronics retailer “Good Buy” to charge her with domestic terrorism, putting her bail well beyond the family budget. A la Marge Simpson, she finds the time in the slammer a welcome break from household drudgery. While she blisses out, her daughters face mounting bills and a hovering Child Protective Services case worker (Kinna McInroe), who threatens to place their kid brother (Lance Gray) in foster care. 

It’s all played with a kinetic thrust, putting girl power in action. (The movie’s apt shout-out to Mary Tyler Moore has extra resonance since her passing.) Calculating a tidy sum just short of $12,000 as the solution to their problems — enough to get Mom out of jail and satisfy their creditors — Deidra hatches her plot after a visit to Chet, who works as a mechanic for the railroad. She enlists Laney in the nighttime maneuvers and talks her ex (Myko Olivier), a pot dealer turned fast-food staffer, into serving as the fence for the stolen goods. Chet, meanwhile, welcomes the criminal undertaking as a chance to get back in his family’s good graces. 

Given that the girls’ escapades involve a strategically placed stuffed bear as a sentry of sorts, it’s no surprise that the story proceeds toward a silly, if tightly constructed, pileup of incidents rather than trafficking in suspense. The girls’ relationship, and especially the way Laney begins to assert herself, gives the film its only true friction, and its emotional texture. 

Surrounding the sisters are the slightly cartoonish but thoroughly sincere grown-ups, well etched by the cast. Each girl has a female mentor at school. SNL’s Sasheer Zamata finds a giddily hyper-focused edge as Deidra’s guidance counselor. A somewhat underused Missi Pyle is all heartfelt poise as a beauty pageant advisor to Laney, who unexpectedly finds herself a contestant in the Teen Miss Idaho competition, much to the ire of her supposed best friend (Brooke Markham). 

As the self-impressed railroad detective who’s hot on the girls’ trail, Tim Blake Nelson comes closest to flat-out caricature. But even his vaping, fanny-pack-sporting, overeager investigator is three-dimensional. Foolishly disdaining the “pacifist” local cop (Arturo Castro) who sees right through his affectations, he's as earnest as he is mean-spirited.

The movie’s playful zing extends to its visual strategy, with an unfussy emphasis on geometry, graphics and primary colors in the railroad boxcars and the work of production designers Cindy Chao and Michele Yu, all of it enhanced by an offhand symmetry in DP Quyen Tran’s compositions. For all the film’s cartoon-tinged touches, though, Freeland never loses sight of the financial realities at its core, and the domino effect that one unexpected expense can have on a family’s wellbeing.

Distributor: Netflix
Production companies: Storefront Pictures, General Population
Cast: Ashleigh Murray, Rachel Crow, Sasheer Zamata, Danielle Nicolet, Arturo Castro, David Sullivan, Sharon Lawrence, Missi Pyle, Tim Blake Nelson, Brooke Markham, Kinna McInroe, Lance Gray, Myko Olivier
Director: Sydney Freeland
Screenwriter: Shelby Farrell
Producers: Susan Cartsonis, Nick Moceri
Executive producers: Randy Kiyan, Ian Bricke, Ifunanya Maduka
Director of photography: Quyen Tran
Production designers: Cindy Chao, Michele Yu
Costume designer: Ciara Whaley
Editor: Michael Taylor
Composers: Mark Orton, Joel Pickard
Casting: Matthew Lessall

92 minutes