'Kin': Film Review

An admirable but low-impact mashup.

Jack Reynor, Dennis Quaid, Zoe Kravitz and James Franco star with newcomer Myles Truitt in a genre-melding sci-fi drama.

Kin is a superhero movie of sorts, refreshingly uncluttered by the genre’s usual sleek-and-shiny overkill. To be sure, the sleek and shiny bits are few and far between in a feature that begins amid the desolate ruins of Detroit and soon takes to the glamourless highway. The unlikely superhero at its center, a lonely city kid, has murderous magic at his fingertips after stumbling upon an otherworldly weapon. Newcomer Myles Truitt inhabits the role with an earthbound soulfulness — what you might call the opposite of heroic flash — and even when the film’s progress feels more mechanical than organic, he’s easy to root for.

Directors Jonathan and Josh Baker, expanding upon their 2014 short Bag Man and working from a screenplay by Daniel Casey, have more or less melded together a coming-of-age adventure, family drama, sci-fi mystery, road trip, revenge saga and crime thriller. The pieces fit together neatly, with no whiz-bang fuss. What’s missing, though, is the necessary urgency to propel the action. Having lit the narrative fuse, the helmers don’t always manage to keep it burning, and the intended emotional payoff arrives more as tacked-on explanation than revelatory sock to the solar plexus. You can appreciate the filmmakers’ instincts and much of what they bring to the screen, and look forward to their next outing, while wishing that this debut feature were truly transporting.

There’s no question, though, that the Bakers, with their background in commercials, lend an assured visual sensibility to the material. They seamlessly blend nifty practical and digital effects, with an emphasis on the former and a welcome sense of proportion for the latter. The unshowy design work of Ethan Tobman and Lea Carlson is key to the deft mix of the workaday and the unearthly, and the cinematography by Larkin Seiple — a longtime Bakers collaborator who shot the features Swiss Army Man and Cop Car as well as Childish Gambino’s This Is America — captures it all with an unforced suppleness, a quality that the story itself achieves only occasionally.

Sometimes it’s hard to separate the genre nods from cliches — the strip-club dive, the unhinged crime boss, the goon brutality. But in its early scenes especially, Kin exerts a mesmerizing pull, delving into the haunted decay of a crumbling, seemingly postapocalyptic Detroit along with 14-year-old Eli (Truitt) as he scavenges for scrap metal in the city’s abandoned buildings. (The score by Scottish band Mogwai heightens the tangled feelings of dread and mystery.) In one of those buildings Eli discovers the carnage of an otherworldly war, and alongside the fallen soldiers an automatic weapon, about the size and shape of a Casio keyboard, with a souped-up holographic sight and the promise of superhuman destructive clout.

Friendless and unassuming, Eli, whose adoptive mother has recently died, is as worthy a recipient of such unsought power as you could find. He’s a black kid in a white family and one who, with the exception of the skirmishes he gets into at school, internalizes his struggles as an outsider. As Hal Solinski, his salt-of-the-earth widowed father, Dennis Quaid lays to waste whatever sense of cliche might cling to the single dad as a movie trope. He does it with a masterful mix of gruff and wounded, and the stamp he puts on construction worker Hal in just a few key scenes is the emotional pulse of the film, even when he’s not onscreen.

The other central characters haven’t anywhere near the impact of Quaid’s Hal, though they shape Eli’s story and set it in motion. Most of the action finds the teen on the lam with his older brother, Jimmy (an earnest Jack Reynor), who just got out of prison and is dangerously indebted to gangster Taylor, played with over-the-top gusto by James Franco. Taylor and his henchman hit the road to nab Jimmy, and two figures from the other world, faceless in their visored helmets, hop on motorcycles to retrieve the powerful gizmo. Yet even with two sets of people on their tail — and some impressive high-speed bike work — the chase never gets its dramatic motors revving.

As for the Canada-shot film’s pit stops along the American highway, at their best they have a disquieting eeriness: Eli’s moment of communion with an owl is a standout, and a well-placed nod to Bag Man. Mainly the roadside interactions are middling — recognizable but less-than-convincing plot points. The familiar actors’ presence outweighs the dramatic impact, from Carrie Coon’s eleventh-hour cameo as an FBI agent to Zoe Kravitz’s more crucial role as an exotic dancer. Kravitz is very good as Milly, who takes a maternal interest in Eli, but the part never rises above its predictable purpose as a comment on families and their fracturing.

That’s even more the case for Franco’s character, whose menace is as manufactured as his devotion to his brother, Dutch (Gavin Fox). The obvious attempt to underscore the movie’s sibling theme is self-conscious rather than felt, much like the intended jab of humor over the fact that the bad guy digs Joni Mitchell. A nice touch at first, his unexpected musical taste is quickly overplayed.

Such lapses are all the more disappointing given the Bakers’ clear knack for conjuring affecting places and moods. In one notable example, when Taylor and his crew overtake a small police station, the sequence unfolds with a quick-moving choreography that’s chilling in its matter-of-factness.

Whether or not the filmmakers explore Eli’s adventures further, the superhero origin story is certainly part of Kin’s multi-genre mashup. And though that aspect of the drama unfolds in disappointingly anticlimactic fashion, the movie’s low-key combo of grit and fantasy has its own vitality. The material’s promise isn’t fully realized, but at the feature’s strongest there’s something exhilarating about its detour onto backroads, away from prefab superheroics.

Production companies: No Trace Camping, 21 Laps Entertainment
Distributor: Summit Entertainment/Lionsgate
Cast: Jack Reynor, Zoe Kravitz, Myles Truitt, Dennis Quaid, Carrie Coon, James Franco, Romano Orzari, Ian Matthews, Gavin Fox, Stephane Garneau-Monten, Lukas Penar, Carleigh Beverly, Lily Gao
Directors: Jonathan & Josh Baker
Screenwriter: Daniel Casey, based on the short film
Bag Man by Jonathan & Josh Baker
Producers: Jeff Arkuss, David Gross, Jesse Shapira, Shawn Levy, Dan Cohen
Executive producer: Michael B. Jordan
Director of photography: Larkin Seiple
Production designer: Ethan Tobman
Costume designer: Lea Carlson
Editor: Mark Day
Composer: Mogwai
Casting directors: Rori Bergman, Sara Kay, Jenny Lewis

Rated PG-13, 102 minutes