On the trickle-down effect of franchise filmmaking, electromagnetic body modification, and why the writers of Sleight need to meet more women
Sleight BH Tilt
Director: J.D. Dillard
Screenplay: Alex Theurer and J.D. Dillard
Starring: Jacob Latimore, Seychelle Gabriel, Dulé Hill, Storm Reid, Sasheer Zamata, Michael Villar and Cameron Esposito
Rated R / 1 hour, 29 minutes / 2.35:1
April 28, 2017
(out of four)
The most important scene in J.D. Dillard's Sleight would make for a hell of a demo reel. It is everything the preceding hour or so has been building toward - a setpiece of splendid choreography and effects work, a well-conceived dramatic payoff and personal triumph in which consequence, self-discovery and moral purpose dovetail with a violent grace. If the main character has, in these climactic moments, finally evolved, so too has the film.
Getting to that point, on the other hand ...
That this one sequence is so much more effective than most of what leads up to it, despite its high degree of difficulty, is conspicuous, if not suspicious. It's as if the filmmakers spent all their resources and most of their effort getting this one scene right, and hurried through everything else. It only validates the lingering feeling that Sleight is more a first draft than a fully-realized film - and perhaps less a film at all and more a proof of concept. An audition for bigger things. Its studio-franchise models and impulses couldn't be clearer. To begin with, this is essentially a superhero origin story, with Bo (Jacob Lattimore) as a bio-electromagnetically enhanced street magician gradually drawn into battle with forces of evil that threaten the lives of his loved ones - primarily little sister Tina (Storm Reid, a superhero name if there ever was one). There's even resemblance to something like Rocky - self-made man with blue-collar sensibilities, new girlfriend by his side, working for small-time crooks to make ends meet, eventually given (or in this case forced into) his shot, and rising to that challenge. This is a similar crowd-pleaser - drug dealers instead of loan sharks, science experiments instead of boxing rings - with a seedier backdrop and more serious consequences.
But more peculiar is what's tacked on to the end of the film (no spoilers) - an extraneous scene that blatantly teases a sequel. Quite an ambition for an independently produced debut feature that cost a quarter-million. To be fair, this could just be Dillard and co-writer Alex Theurer having a bit of fun with the countless possibilities presented by their premise. Any character with special powers is practically tailor-made for serialization. But in this case, leaving aside the unlikelihood of that mooted follow-up ever getting made, the gesture informs us that the film itself is incomplete. That its larger purpose lies not in the story we've just seen but in what happens after. That Sleight is merely prologue.
It got me wondering how, if at all, the franchise model that dominates current studio filmmaking is affecting storytelling at lower levels. Sleight seems to already think of itself as a brand - an intellectual property to be expanded and built upon and mythologized. Adapted into a graphic novel, perhaps. Spun off into a broader universe (dare I say an alliance?) of street magicians, each with their own story. Merchandised, obviously. Eventually, when enough time has passed, reimagined or remade. It's not like this is the first movie of its kind to preemptively envision itself as a franchise; Unbreakable is a widely known example, designed with a trilogy in mind. And yet that movie never felt incomplete as a result - never felt like it was only setting up some nebulous future narrative. It was a full-bodied character study with the potential to go places. So there's nothing inherently wrong with this film envisioning the same for itself. But its theoretically intriguing postscript only shines a light on how incomplete and half-developed Sleight really is. Its problems are first-draft problems. Maybe slow your roll a little instead of trying to play the post-credit game like you're Marvel or something.
Dillard's filmmaking - in almost every scene - has a lot more polish than a lot of similarly inclined indie genre efforts. Or first-time efforts in general, for that matter. But grading on a curve does no one any favors, and the disappointing thing - especially in contrast to the maturity and accomplishment of the climactic scene - is how utterly unconvincing Sleight is in scene after scene. Too many lazy ideas for conflict and complication. Too little thought put into virtually the entire cast of supporting characters. Too many scenes staged in ways that fail to properly accentuate what's actually at stake, emotionally, psychologically or otherwise. The composition and blocking in one scene in particular - a crucial moment of intimidation and choice that ramps up one major subplot - is so clumsy that I assumed it was deliberately staged to shield us from a trick, or a misdirect. That the thing we thought we saw would be completely recontextualized by the end of the movie. But no, turns out it was just bad staging.
The bigger problems are on the script level, both in its conception of the characters (practically nonexistent) and in its monotonous rhythms. It's always the drug-dealer boss interrupting the dinner date, forcing Bo to make a quick exit. The kindly neighbor is always available to help when the script needs her to. It's always the same adversary - a rival dealer in town named Maurice - getting in the way of everything. The movie goes out of its way to find half-developed ways to complicate Bo's life, yet can't be bothered to get creative with any of them. The framework is fine, but the specifics of the plotting are cheap crime drama.
On the Col. Jack Lipnick standard of how best to sidekick a solitary hero - romantic interest or young kid; dame or orphan - Sleight goes with Barton Fink's more ambitious approach: Both! The romantic interest is Holly (Seychelle Gabriel), who sees Bo doing his magic act and slips him her phone number; the orphan is his own sister, whom he takes care of now that their parents are gone. The bad element he gets mixed up with is Angelo (Dulé Hill), who treats his henchmen and street dealers like friends and brothers, at least until they step out of line. And he's even less forgiving of anyone (like the aforementioned Maurice) who tries encroaching on his territory.
The film gets its protagonist down pretty well, I'll give it that. Latimore has a dynamic presence and he makes Bo an immensely likeable character - in both good moments and bad, good decisions and bad. He's easy to root for - especially once he begins taking his destiny into his own hands. But it's the other characters who miss the mark. Gabriel has a similar likeability, but her new-girlfriend character is so poorly conceived that her entire role basically makes no sense. Holly is nice and pretty and seems to have no relevant outside interests or characteristics except for the fact that she's physically abused by her alky mother. Bo mysteriously skips out on his and Holly's first date after about five minutes, and she rolls with it. On their second date, he skips out again - halfway through this time - even more mysteriously. She cheerfully accepts this. Her brow might wrinkle for a second, but she asks no questions. What's that? You need someone to watch over your little sister for the rest of the night? I'll do it! You need thousands of dollars all of a sudden or your life is at risk? Here's all of my money! You're secretly working for a drug dealer? Let's bang! She seems to have no requirements for herself, no needs, no wants, no depth, no resistance, no internal existence whatsoever. She can't get through a single date with this guy and she's happily content to be his bank and babysitter. Anything you need, baby. This is nothing against the performance, which makes Holly as human as the script's limitations could possibly allow; but the behavior itself is practically Stepford-level. Someone please introduce the writers of this screenplay to full-fledged human women.
Meanwhile, they might not necessarily want to avail themselves of the company of actual criminals, but doing so may have helped their depiction of Angelo, who unsurprisingly emerges as the film's primary antagonist. And by "antagonist" I mean corny gangster who isn't threatening or intimidating or scary even for a second. Dulé Hill (Psych, The West Wing) is a fine actor, but he's badly miscast in this role. Playing against type often reveals new dimensions in a performer, but it can just as easily reveal limitations. Turns out Hill isn't remotely plausible as a ruthless would-be kingpin. Now we know.
Accidental as it may be, I suppose that's just another way Sleight's tendencies align so well with modern superhero filmmaking. The Marvel and DC universes have lame villains, too. If Sleight imagines itself as a small-scale version of that kind of filmmaking, in at leaset one way it's unfortunately on the right track.