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Sleight
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by Jay Seaver

"Good close-up, but the biggest trick doesn't quite work."
3 stars

As much as it's nice to see a movie that acknowledges that its impossible magic tricks are actually impossible, doing that muddies "Sleight" a bit,chipping away at the desperate underdog situation once its hero actually has to use his amazing-but-homebrew invention to get out of a bad situation in a climax. It's a good hook and nifty overall, but doesn’t entirely come together.

The street magician in this case is Bo (Jacob Latimore), a 19-year-old kid in Los Angeles who could have gone to college on an engineering scholarship, but passed it up in order to take care of his little sister Tina (Storm Reid) after their mother died. There are some perks - Holly (Seychelle Gabriel) dropped her phone number in his hat along with a couple of bucks, for instance - but most of his money comes dealing drugs for Angelo (Dulé Hill). Unfortunately, he does it a bit too well, so despite his efforts to avoid the violent side of the business, Angelo takes Bo along to confront Maurice (Mane Andrew), who has set up operations on Angelo’s turf. That starts a spiral that will be difficult to escape, even with the secret weapon Bo has in his arm.

Sleight tips off that it’s got a fantastic element or two early on, so what happens later on isn’t a complete right turn, but it’s the somewhat conventional foundation that makes it worthwhile. It’s anchored by Jacob Latimore’s performance as Bo, a sheepish genius who keeps winding up in situations where one would expect more outward confidence. There’s no smirk when Bo is performing street magic, and the sequence where he apparently holds a gun for the first time as Angelo’s crew goes to teach Maurice a lesson is a fantastic example of someone clearly not knowing what he’s doing or wanting any part of it without it ever becoming physical comedy. There’s a wonderful decency to him as well as an ability to make bad decisions utterly believable and forgivable, youth in over its head without making a big scene of it.

He’s got especially good chemistry with Storm Reid as Tina, with Reid herself benefiting from Tina being written more as an average kid than someone too young to pick up on anything or sarcastic beyond her years. Sasheer Zamata impresses as their helpful next-door neighbor, and while Seychelle Gabriel often has a little trouble elevating the character most often written as a cliché - Holly often fits a situation a little too well and pushes back too little - it also makes it easy to recognize that she’s similarly uncomplicated, young enough to be optimistic even if she’s been through some battles too. The best supporting performance, though, comes from Dulé Hill, who manages to keep Angelo not just charismatic, but strangely likable, even as it becomes clear that he’s not actually the world’s only nice drug dealer. His twisting the character into a terrifying adversary as the movie goes on is the kind of work that could easily go unnoticed, but shouldn’t.

All that is kind of familiar, although director J.D. Dillard and co-writer Alex Theurer fill it with neat moments. The close-up magic stuff is where they seem to have the most fun, peppering it into the script in such a way that Dillard doesn’t need to show a close-up or flashback at the moment when it’s clear that this might be an extremely useful set of skills for a street dealer to have; the audience just gets it. Dillard also shoots a lot of the performances in such a way that the viewer will give a couple seconds to wondering how Bo does that, even if he or she knows that both CGI cheating and made-up technology are on the tale. He knows how to make the violent sequences dark and horrifying without making them too repugnant to enjoy watching.

The more science-fictional bit just doesn’t fit, unfortunately. Dillard and Theurer frequently seem to be poking around at the idea of Bo destroying his own body and life to try and secure Tina’s future, something that’s potentially potent in a number of ways, but they don’t quite make it work as a major theme of the movie. It’s also kept mostly off the table between the initial introduction and the last act, enough to make the audience wonder just how effective this tech is or how Bo is able to get such fine control at the climax. On top of that, the shift in tactics away from things akin to card tricks to more aggressive action says something about the character that Dillard and Theurer don’t give themselves enough time to grapple with.

Still, that doesn't hurt things too badly, and the movie does have a likable young cast that makes it highly watchable before things get a bit crazy. Come the end, the movie is definitely torn between is superhero and close-up-magic sides, but that doesn’t invalidate all the good stuff along the way.

link directly to this review at http://www.efilmcritic.com/review.php?movie=30005&reviewer=371
originally posted: 05/01/17 23:34:10
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OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2016 Sundance Film Festival For more in the 2016 Sundance Film Festival series, click here.

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USA
  28-Apr-2017

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Australia
  28-Apr-2017




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