A good magician wants to dazzle his audience. He wants to upend their perception of reality. He wants to keep them guessing about how a trick was accomplished. Magicians play against our predictions. And yet even though a street magician is the main character in J.D. Dillard’s Sleight, his movie takes the most predictable path possible towards every outcome. Outside of a couple performances, the movie does nothing to upend our expectations on any level. It’s the cinematic equivalent of pulling a card from a deck, being told the card, and then the show is over.
Following his mother’s death, Bo (Jacob Latimore) works as a street magician and a drug dealer to support his little sister Tina (Storm Reid) and hopes he can make enough money to move them into a better neighborhood. Inevitably, Bo runs afoul of his charismatic but psychotic supplier Angelo (Dulé Hill), who gives the young man an unreasonable ultimatum. Bo must then use his intellect and special magical trick, which involves an electromagnet embedded in his arm, to protect himself and Tina from Angelo’s wrath.
Sleight feels like a retread of last year’s Dope in that Sundance programmers are drawn to movies about smart black teenagers who are forced by circumstances to become drug dealers, but then use their intellect to solve the problem. It boils down societal problems into interpersonal ones where the solution seems to be, “If only drug dealers were smarter, then they could outwit the system!” It’s a cloying, simplistic way to approach the drug trade, and Angelo’s power is severely diminished when it looks like his crew consists of him, two buddies, and Bo. And yet this guy is a forced to be reckoned with? In Los Angeles?
Thankfully, Hill has the charm to carry the role. He doesn’t overplay Angelo’s craziness or lapse into drug lord clichés even though that’s how the character is written. Angelo feels like an individual even if it’s a stock character of Evil Supplier who will do very bad things. Hill brings a certain gravitas to the role, and we can understand why Bo, who’s not a dumb kid, would think that Angelo would be a reasonable employer in a traditionally violent, chaotic business.
Latimore is also terrific, and he perfectly walks the line when showing that while Bo is smarter than most people his age, he’s still naïve and way out of his depth in his current scheme. While this is far from a star-making turn, it wouldn’t surprise me if years from now people are point to Sleight to check out some of the actor’s earlier work and point out how he has innate charisma and charm without ever overreaching. We buy Bo as a real kid even if his “power” is ridiculous.
The script also hammers us over the head with how that power is also the theme of the entire film, and that Bo’s desire to create real magic out of real sacrifice should be somehow powerful. But the notion of “sacrifice is magical” is lost in a movie so mundane and by the numbers as Sleight. Dillard doesn’t embrace anything magical or play with our expectations, and when the solution to your problems is to basically become Magneto, the whole story comes off as silly rather than profound. Ultimately, Sleight is only fooling itself.
‘Sleight’ Is Magic: The First Great Black Superhero Movie
From the producers of ‘Get Out’ and WWE Studios comes ‘Sleight,’ a gritty, impressive superhero saga that is like ‘Spider-Man’ meets ‘Boyz n the Hood.’
Superhero cinema overload is now a year-round condition, as proven by the fact that Logan and The Lego Batman Movie are still making money at the multiplex, Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2, Wonder Woman and Spider-Man: Homecoming are set to rule the summer, and Thor: Ragnarok and Justice League are primed to dominate the fall. Those studio spectacles will no doubt deliver even more rock ‘em, sock’ em CGI mayhem than their predecessors, once again satiating a constant moviegoing hunger for more of the same—only louder, faster, bigger. Which is why perhaps the most unexpectedly satisfying superhero film on the horizon is, conversely, the smallest.Sleight is the most unassuming comic book-y feature of 2017, an indie that’s indebted to its Marvel and DC compatriots even as it carves out a uniquely compelling—and incisive—place for itself amidst the crowded genre field. Having debuted at last year’s Sundance Film Festival, and arriving in theaters on April 28, this directorial debut from music video vet J.D. Dillard is both an origin story and a self-contained adventure, one that places a premium on character and visual storytelling ahead of any obligations (of which it has none) to make its tale a component of some larger shared-universe saga. The film’s economy is its trump card—well, that and star Jacob Latimore, who, following a forgettable supporting part in last year’s Will Smith-led fiasco Collateral Beauty, announces himself as a leading man-in-the-making with
his turn as a street magician whose card tricks are more than just illusions.
Dillard sets his scene in a quick intro pan around the bedroom of Bo (Latimore), depicting childhood knick-knacks and photos before ultimately passing by his engineering scholarship, all as a voicemail message informs us that his mother has just passed away and that he’ll thus have to give up his academic dreams. Cut to the immediate present, and Bo is performing sleight-of-hand feats in public in Los Angeles in order to make a few extra dollars to help care for his little sister Tina (Storm Reid), who’s now in his care. Too young to be a father figure, and yet given no other choice but to accept that role, Bo comes across as the best kind of big brother: supportive, attentive, devoted, and willing to sacrifice his own fortunes for that of his charge. Even, as we soon learn, at great peril.
As it turns out, Bo earns his primary income selling drugs on the street for Angelo (Dulé Hill, in a charmingly sinister performance). It’s a dangerous occupation, although as an encounter with the police proves, it’s one for which he’s tailor-made, since his gift for making things disappear means it’s tough to nab him for possession. More bothersome, at least initially, is that Angelo’s demands on his time keep interrupting his dates with Holly (Seychelle Gabriel), an independent beauty with an abusive mother who gives Bo her phone number after one of his curbside performances, and soon comes to be his potential partner in a new, makeshift surrogate family.The real question, however, is how Bo pulls off his illusory exploits. Through its first two-thirds, Sleight is shrewd to provide only tantalizing hints about the source of his extraordinary ability, which seems to stem from some bizarre circular mecha-device implanted in his right shoulder (where it’s causing infections). When that revelation does arrive, Dillard’s film reveals itself to be akin to a small-scale urban variation on Iron Man, albeit with Bo also resembling, to varying degrees, both Marvel’s latest Spider-Man, Miles Morales, and famed X-Men villain Magneto. Still, its superhero lineage is merely one part of its DNA, which includes strains of science-fiction, socio-economic commentary, and coming-of-age drama. That it synthesizes these disparate elements so naturally is one of its genuine strengths.Which isn’t to deny that Sleight is, first and foremost, something like a modest riff on Tony Stark’s tale. As becomes clear [minor spoilers follow], Bo has used his engineering know-how to retrofit himself with an electronic gadget that gives him the power to manipulate metal objects; in effect, his arm is a super-magnet. This transformation is designed to figuratively save him, by letting him transcend his current circumstances as a poor kid trapped in a life of crime, and as a young man unsure of how best to provide for his sister. In other words, he’s turned himself into a superhero in order to become an adult. And his fondness for Houdini, whose poster is spied twice on his wall (with the message “Nothing on Earth can hold Houdini prisoner”), speaks to magic’s metaphorical role in Sleight. It’s Bo’s means of breaking his chains, so to speak, and escaping.Dillard’s script is impressive not only for the way it hybridizes various genre ancestors, but for its efficiency. Rarely do characters spout exposition about their situations or feelings; instead, the filmmaker conveys much about Bo’s emotions, and the dynamics he shares with others, through canny aesthetic choices. His striking compositions impart information through framing and spatial arrangements, and Ed Wu’s sinewy camerawork and rich color palette do much to create a heightened sense of suspense—as does Charles Scott IV’s brooding electronic score. No matter its low budget, which is also the reason for its thrifty use of special effects, Sleight, progressing with a dreamy rhythm infused with danger, is never less than formally arresting.“Anyone can learn a trick. But doing something that no one else is willing to do makes you a magician. I can do something no one else can,” says Bo early on, and though the statement resounds with confidence, Latimore’s performance is aces precisely because that sort of cockiness is married to mounting in-over-his-head anxiety, which truly takes hold after Angelo forces him to do something that he most definitely does not want to do. Latimore embodies Bo as an outwardly assured, internally hesitant boy trying to navigate complicated grown-up terrain, at once charismatic and in control and yet crazy scared about what’s in store for him. Such uncertainty doesn’t extend to Sleight itself, however, which concludes on a sharp note that teases greater things to come, but refuses to show us its (hidden-off-screen) final money shot. Like the best illusionists, it knows that mystery is the key to its magic.
Sleight is bound to draw comparisons to the superhero genre, but this coming of age story is something unlike anything we have seen before. Here we have the gritty, often unbelievably dark tale of an underdog trying to do right that major studios would likely never think to produce. Even in the age of Deadpool, where it seems earning an R-rating is the latest craze in trying to appeal to the nerd market, Sleight earns its stripes with a story deserving of the film’s violent imagery.
Jacob Latimore stars as Bo, a brilliant young man who must ignore a scholarship to care for his younger sister after losing both his parents. To make ends meet Bo works a street magician by day and a low level drug dealer by night, but he has no intentions of being a criminal for long. When the film begins Bo is already planning his escape, though he knows not what he will do next. An opportunity to make more money by taking more risks further complicates things, forcing Bo and those around him into an increasingly dangerous situation with no easy way out.
There is something special to the magic Bo performs. Not only is it all real, but he has a literal trick up his sleeve of his own inventions that provides him with enhanced abilities. He’s not flipping cars or climbing walls, but he is manipulating the world around him in ways only he fully understands. It’s an advantage that carries over into other facets of his life as well, but like any good hero he knows to keep it a secret from those who might use it for evil.
Latimore, in his first leading role, is mesmerizing in his portrayal of Bo. We feel the weight of his decisions through his every move, as well as the uncertainty those choices bring. He’s supported by equally bright turns from Seychelle Gabriel and Dulé Hill, with the latter embracing his dark side as the film’s villain.
Sleight doesn’t need Bo’s trickery to be a good film, but its presence in an otherwise slow-burn crime thriller is certainly not a disappointment. The story stands well on its own with or without Bo’s brilliant mind, which is incredibly important because the things that make Bo most unique are left largely unexplored. Some will likely find this fault, especially when the final moments stop just short of teasing a potential sequel that could very well never happen, but I see it as a testament to Dillard’s gifts as a storyteller. Here he creates a world where things are only marginally different than own, yet there is an energy in the air that draws you in early and slowly tightens its grip. By the time the climatic finale comes to pass viewers will be frothing at the mouth with excitement.
Filmmaker J.D. Dillard has done the impossible. In a time where films about teens overcoming adversity are increasingly in quantity exponentially, Sleight reinvents coming of age films for a new generation. I find it hard to imagine another original film having the thrills, inventiveness, or craftsmanship of this movie being released in 2017. The twists come fast, and as the body count begins to rise you’re left to consider whether or not anyone survives a life in crime.
Keep your eyes on the magician’s hands. She’ll attempt to distract you with compliments and silly quips, but her most effective feint will be the story she tells as she shuffles the cards. She might give quaint mention to a lover’s spat between the King of Hearts and the Queen of Hearts. Or she’ll spin a detailed yarn about the conjoined silver rings that she’s brandishing, insisting that they were fastened together by a wise old man. The more outlandish the tale, the better: The words busy the brain until the magician hits you with the big reveal — you’re sitting on the Queen of Hearts! At least that’s one way it could go. In J.D. Dillard’s coming-of-age (and coming-of-magic) tale, Sleight — about a young street magician who turns to dealing drugs to care for his little sis — the director builds to one big, beautiful revelation. But the story he tells in the lead-up doesn’t distract so much as it politely asks you to stand up so that it can place the trick card under your ass.Jacob Latimore is Bo Wolfe, a smart kid in Los Angeles who turned down a college scholarship to hustle party drugs at clubs. Mom has just died, so Bo has to make fast cash to cover rent for him and his sister, Tina (Storm Reid). During the day, Bo does card and levitation tricks for a few dollars tossed in a canvas tote, which is how he meets Holly (Seychelle Gabriel), a bakery waitress who glows when Bo floats her golden ring in front of her face. He literally has a trick up his sleeve: an electromagnetic device he has implanted in his shoulder.Dillard presents this body mutilation as something like a seeping, infected eye, with copper wire neatly sewn around the hole as an embroidered sun. Like a real-life comic-book hero, Bo derives his power this way, and Dillard has great fun with these elements of the fantastic. The director shoots the street-magic scenes in bright light and gives us intentionally hilarious mind-freaked crowd-reaction shots in slow motion. There’s real joy in these moments, and you pine for more of them as the film wears on and Dillard baits-and-switches us, focusing more and more on the monotonous good-kid-gets-in-too-deep-with-bad-guys story.
Dulé Hill plays seemingly sophisticated drug pusher Angelo, Bo’s boss. Angelo’s like a dad to the orphaned Bo. He even gives the kid money for a date, but the cash comes with the stipulation of “favors” done in return. As one-note as these gangsters-doing-drug-deals scenes are — lots of lead pipes and guns and people huffing and puffing about their “territory” — Dillard does break up the rote tough-guy play by smartly cutting to Bo’s quivering hands. A master magician relies upon those appendages, but the gun cripples Bo like Kryptonite, building a little tension as we wonder whether he’ll use those hands to get out of the jam.
But we know from the get-go that Bo will take a risk, get too involved with the violent side of the drug business and have to find a way to extract himself from the situation — this is a story we’ve seen before. What we haven’t seen is the untold story leading up to this plot, one that shows us how a teenage science whiz gets so obsessed with magic that he burrows copper wires into his own goddamned arm.
Instead of showing us this, Dillard merely announces the backstory in a lengthy monologue delivered by Bo: As a kid, he became enamored with a street magician who put a knife through his hand without bleeding or creating a wound. Years later, Bo reconnected with the man and learned the secret: He had stabbed his palm so many times that he had built up so much scar tissue that would accept a real blade. Just for a trick, the man really did send the knife through his hand again and again. That’s a great story, but I don’t want to hear about it; I want to see it. Likewise, we’re never shown just how Bo got himself into his dilemma with Angelo.
Bo’s hardship is established by a single shot of what seems to be an unopened bill from a hospital. Later, he says that he wishes he could move Tina out of their house and into a better school district. But we don’t see Bo struggling. How indebted is he? Was dealing drugs his first choice for a job? Did his trickster personality not jibe with other employers? (And, drug-dealing jobs go, this one seems pretty cush; all he does is pull up in his car and exchange money for molly. The one time cops hassle him, he doesn’t seem fazed as he uses sleight of hand and leaves the cops befuddled.) We know he wants to be a magician, but he doesn’t seem to have any ambition to take his act off the street. Where are the stakes for Bo?
The filmmakers and the studio seem aware that the story is missing its impetus. After the screening, I was handed a promotional Sleight comic by Ryan Parrot, illustrated by Rob Guillory. Inside, all of Bo’s backstory is laid out with beauty and feeling, starting right from that magician with the knife in his palm and showing Bo getting fired from a valet company and then taking his first job for Angelo. The biggest sleight was watching this entire movie, only to find that what I wanted was in a comic book.