'The Magic City': Champs-Elysees Review

A rough-and-tumble first film that suggests the director has both promise and still a lot to learn.

This gritty, Liberty City-set debut feature from writer-director-cinematographer R. Malcolm Jones stars Keith David, Jenifer Lewis and newcomer Amiya Thomas.

PARIS—Three young girls are pretty much left to their own devices even before they find themselves with a dead body on their hands in The Magic City, the rough-hewn, Miami-set feature debut of R. Malcolm Jones.

Part of the U.S. indie competition and a special Afro-American focus at the recent Champs-Elysees Film Festival in Paris, this very lively and coarse feature showcases three unaffected performances from its young leads and suggests writer-director-cinematographer Jones has both promise and still a lot to learn. The Magic City will be a good fit for regional festivals and could also serve as an introduction to Jones’s follow-up, a series with the same protagonists called Liberty, after the rough Liberty City neighborhood where both the film and the series are set (the 'hood was the stage for the eponymous 1980 race riots).

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The three protagonists of the film are sisters Tiana (Latrice Jackson) and Nia (Lashalle Jackson), who live with their aunt Georgia, and the newly arrived girl next door, Amiya (Amiya Thomas), whose drug-addict mother in better-off Tampa has dumped her daughter on the doorstep of Amiya’s kind but stern aunt Valerie (Jenifer Lewis, the voice of Flo from the Cars movies) for the summer.

The adjacent houses of the (unrelated) aunts feel like relatively safe havens for the girls, who are confronted with police, ambulances and dead bodies as soon as they venture onto the streets of Liberty City, captured by Jones in a handheld, occasionally almost fauvist style with overly saturated, low-grade colors and a lot of movement that give a good idea of how vivacious but also how dangerous the place can be. Amiya also has to deal with her uncle Tru (Jamie Hector, Max Payne), who keeps a case of military weapons in his bedroom and who has gone all whack since he came back from a tour of duty in Kandahar ("where’s Kandahar?” she asks innocently enough, underlining the film's child-like point of view).

"All start innocent and all end up guilty" and "Some caterpillars never become butterflies," Tiana preaches in a somewhat precious voice-over that sounds more like she’s reading fortune cookie notes out loud rather than simply speaking as someone whose rough life experiences have made her wise beyond her years. But despite this supposedly binding element, the first reel or two are very rough-and-tumble, not much more than a collection of loose and loosely connected scenes that serve to immerse the viewer in the atmosphere of Liberty City and these young girls in particular.

It thus takes a while before the relationships and quandaries crystallize and the film only really gets going when the two siblings and their new neighbor, who are initially rather hostile to one another, find themselves thrown together by the death of one of the few caring adult characters in their lives and they have to figure out what to do, both with the corpse and with themselves, now that they are practically left to their own devices. The unforeseen death creates various types of problems, including practical and moral ones and Jones milks the central event for both drama and laughs, especially once a nosey and bitchy cousin (Coi Collins, appropriately saucy) comes snooping around.

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But Jones, who has a background in music videos, clearly struggles with the material’s sudden tonal shifts, with the humor often getting in the way of the drama rather than offering a welcome moment of release from the everyday tragedies that seem to be piling up quickly. The multi-hyphenate is similarly at a loss when trying to create larger narrative arcs, with some individual scenes quite strong but the cobbled-together feel of the editing, credited to Brandon Dumlao, making it impossible to tell where the true story lies or even who the real protagonist is or whether the film's more of an impressionistic snapshot of a neighborhood.

Despite her voice over, Tania often feels like a bit player in her own story, with Amiya, Tru, aunt Valerie and even the kind Mr Daniels (Keith David, Platoon, Cloud Atlas), who runs the corner shop, at various moments appropriating themselves of the limelight (it helps all are convincing actors). But since Jones sticks closely to a more innocent and child-like point-of-view for most of the film's 80-minute running time, The Magic City can never become an adult-centered drama or an ensemble piece in which more innocent or clueless children can co-exist with more thoughtful and perceptive (if disadvantaged) adults.

The sound mix sounded unfinished at the festival projection caught and, generally, technical credits are on the rocky side, though this seems appropriate given the film's setting.

Production company: New Revolution Studios
Cast: Amia Thomas, Latrice Jackson, Lashalle Jackson, Jenifer Lewis, Jamie Hector, Keith David, Vanessa Baden
Writer-Director: R. Malcolm Jones
Producer: Jai M. Santiago
Executive producers: R. Malcolm Jones, Randy Goldfarb, Udonis Haslem
Director of photography: R. Malcolm Jones
Production designer: Tom Criswell
Editor: Brandon Dumlao
No rating, 80 minutes

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