‘Sleight’: Sundance Review

Sleight still 1 - H 2016
Courtesy of Sundance Institute
A hybrid feature that satisfies both dramatically and stylistically.

JD Dillard’s directorial debut, co-starring Jacob Latimore, Dule Hill and Seychelle Gabriel, appeared in the festival’s NEXT section.

Magic tricks become shorthand for the power of personal transformation in JD Dillard’s modestly scaled thriller that’s equally an accessible domestic drama. Loaded with talent on both sides of the camera, Sleight displays the hallmarks of a potential indie crossover that stands to attract both niche and genre audiences alike.

Set in Los Angeles, the film centers on Bo (Jacob Latimore), a street magician in his early 20s struggling to raise his younger sister Tina (Storm Reid) after the recent death of their mother. Bo’s specialty is levitating small metallic objects to the delight of his audiences, but they’re unaware that he’s using an unusual electromagnetic levitation device he invented himself that’s crudely attached by wires and circuits to his arm. Unable to get by with tips from card and coin tricks alone, Bo takes up selling party drugs to yuppies and frat boys for Angelo (Dule Hill), a paternal but inflexible dealer.

After a day performing on the streets of L.A., Bo discovers a note among his tips with a phone number left by Holly (Seychelle Gabriel), an apparent admirer. When they meet for a lunch date he learns that she’s a charming and emotionally direct community college student, which resonates with Bo, since he had to give up a university scholarship to be able to care for Tina. They begin dating, but Bo is frequently called away by Angelo, who is giving him new opportunities to push product, but also greater responsibility that comes with increasing peril.

Those risks multiply after Angelo tracks down another dealer trying to siphon off his customers and forces Bo to take extreme measures to neutralize him. When Holly shows up on his doorstep seeking to escape her violent, alcoholic mother, Bo begins to realize that he needs to sever his connection with Angelo if he expects to build a future with Holly and properly provide for Tina. The plan he develops to make his exit fails to take Angelo’s vindictiveness into account, however, and he quickly finds himself trapped, with everything he values, as well as his own survival, at stake.

Dillard and co-writer Alex Theurer’s script elevates a potentially prosaic redemption narrative by giving Bo distinctive skills that allow him to contend with the threats to his family and future. The screenwriters assume a risk by introducing Bo’s levitation device, which isn’t well substantiated until the final scenes, but manage to pull off their gambit by limiting his dependence on the apparatus and judiciously employing well-crafted special effects.

Latimore’s invested performance, alternating between brash streetwise arrogance and outright panic at Angelo’s ruthlessness, also boosts the believability factor as Bo struggles to avoid letting his talents overwhelm his judgment. Angelo never seems to break a sweat though, dealing decisively with both his own crew and his competitors in Hill’s apparently effortless performance. Gabriel also impresses with her sympathetic demeanor that’s partially obscured by Holly’s wounded personal history of abuse.

After developing his skills as a short film and music video director, Dillard’s auspicious shift to features reveals an imaginative young filmmaker prepared to take manageable risks in pursuit of his personal vision. With a preference for unconventional framing and camera angles, Dillard’s assertive visual style adeptly directs the viewer without calling undue attention to technique. With Sleight as a springboard, it will be interesting to see what he’ll be able to accomplish with a more expansive canvas to work with.

Venue: Sundance Film Festival (NEXT)
Production company: Diablo Entertainment
Cast: Jacob Latimore, Dule Hill, Seychelle Gabriel, Storm Reid, Sasheer Zamata, Cameron Esposito
Director: JD Dillard
Screenwriters: JD Dillard, Alex Theurer
Producers: Eric B. Fleischman, Sean Tabibian, Alex Theurer
Executive producers: Keith Fowler, Brent Aiello-Ortner, Jaremy Aiello-Ortner, Cyrus Zahabian, Ilana Zahabian, Shaul Dina, Justin Farajzade
Director of photography: Edward Wu
Production designer: Susannah Honey
Costume designer: Joanna David
Editor: Joel Griffen
Music: Charles Scott IV
Casting directors: Jessica Sherman, Lindsey Weissmueller
Sales: CAA

Not rated, 89 minutes