Director and co-writer J.D. Dillard’s Sleight is a small movie with a big heart, and characters you can embrace and feel for even as Dillard takes an occasionally shaky spin through a whole handful of different genres. That you still leave the theater having enjoyed this urban drama/sci-fi tale/romance/mystery is testament to his mostly skillful and confident steering of the film, the often clever script Dillard has co-authored with Alex Theurer, plus the winning lead performances and the suspenseful tone that pervades the first two-thirds of the movie.
Jacob Latimore is terrific as Bo, a promising young student whose dreams of escaping the ‘hood and going to college are shattered by the death of his mother (his father passed some time earlier). Left to take care of his young sister Tina (Storm Reid), Bo turns to two means to earn a living: the first is through the exceptional street magic he practices, which also attracts a potential love interest named Holly (Seychelle Gabriel). The second is through selling drugs for local kingpin Angelo (Dule Hill), who sees the no-nonsense Bo as a protégé and wants to bring him along further in his business.
You see, Bo has an uncanny ability to extricate himself from a lot of sticky situations with the cops, and it’s connected to the same secret that makes his magic so astounding. Of course, he would rather do more of the latter than the former, but as the deceptively genial but aggressive Angelo pulls Bo deeper into his criminal activities, our young hero and the people he loves find themselves trapped in an increasingly dangerous situation.
Sleight is, no pun intended, a slight film, and it’s at its best when it focuses on the characters and their relationships: the chemistry between Latimore and Gabriel is appealing, and the patchwork family that Bo and Tina put together with their kindly neighbor Georgi (Sasheer Zamata) is both heartwarming and melancholy. Dillard has a good sense of how to let the audience get to know his characters while keeping the more fantastical elements of his story reined in, doling out just enough to keep the audience guessing (although he oddly gives us a glimpse behind the scenes of Bo’s act early on).
It’s when those elements take center stage in the movie’s final act that things become more conventional and less surprising. I won’t reveal much more less I get accused of spoiling anything, but the last stretch of Sleight feels like a calling card for a bigger gig or a bit of throat-clearing to start a franchise all its own. It’s not bad, but it becomes a bit more routine. Sleight is still a mostly unique and thoughtfully crafted film, and Dillard is a talent to watch for sure (along with his cast), but in the end I was hoping that Sleight had a few more tricks up its sleeve.
Sleight is out in theaters today (April 28).