' ' Cinema Romantico: Sleight

Wednesday, September 20, 2017


J.K. Dillard’s feature film debut “Sleight” fuses a domestic drama with a superhero origin story, though the superheroism always remains close to ground level. That marks “Sleight” as something akin to “Unbreakable”, where a regular guy must come to grips with the power he wields, although the powers in “Unbreakable” appeared from the mystic while the powers in “Sleight”, befitting its hero’s street magician roots, are more about the impossible being rendered pragmatically behind the curtain, like the electromagnet embedded in the arm of the main character Bo (Jacob Latimore). It sounds sensational, and theoretically it is, though Dillard approaches it as matter-of-factly as he can through Bo’s electrical engineering background. This, however, doesn’t necessarily siphon away any wonder, and while the film’s reliance on familiar genre tropes without adding much new to the equation is a hindrance, their familiarity also emerges as part and parcel to the wonder.

Once a promising a student, Bo (Jacob Latimore) was forced to turn down an engineering scholarship when his mom unexpectedly died, thrusting him into the role of caretaker for his younger sister Tina (Storm Reid). Though he hustles performing magic on the street, seen in wonderful little scenes sprinkled throughout, where his joy at providing others joy is palpable, this isn’t enough to support he and sis, and so he has turned to selling drugs for L.A. kingpin Angelo (Dulé Hill), a lucrative enough gig that seems so easy in the early-going that it can only go belly-up. As it does, Bo also meets cute in the midst of a magic trick with Holly (Seychelle Gabriel). And though he is romantically inexperienced, they begin a relationship, as Bo’s personal, professional and secret lives all collide.

Latimore, however, plays both the escalating intensity of his drug dealing scenes and his romantic scenes with a similar kind of panic, which is much more effective in the former than the latter where he comes across like Clark Kent mixed with “Community’s” Troy Barnes, making it seem as if he’s independently in a YA novel. Gabriel’s character may be attending community college but her performance hints at a knowledge and maturity that Latimore cannot match leaving them with next to no chemistry. What’s more, Holly’s presence takes time away from Bo and Tina’s relationship, which is actually the most crucial and deserving of more screen time, though it is lovingly played when given the opportunity, like bonding over the burning of bacon, which Latimore plays with both caretaking frustration and brotherly love.

The drug-dealing subplot, meanwhile, with Angelo treating Bo as something like a son, and Bo getting pulled in deeper and deeper until he seemingly has no way out, is handled serviceably enough yet with none of the invention that Bo’s illusionism might otherwise suggest. Still, given the character’s skin color, the idea that a young black man who can’t go to school has no other options than this comes through clearly. Indeed, his eventually getting out by way of his electromagnetic trickery, in which he deploys his scientific whiz kid abilities to becomes something like a low budget Neo, becomes a moving commentary on how a black kid in present day America escaping his surroundings can be so difficult that you’d almost swear it requires magic.

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