[NOTE: This is a re-post of our review from the Sundance Film Festival; Sleight opens this weekend]
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.