Don’t sleep on this one. Seriously, if nothing comes out of co-writer and director, JD Dillard, and star, Jacob Latimore, after this film, then what really is the point of all this?
What I’m talking about is Sleight, a low budget feature about Bo (Jacob Latimore), a street magician by day and drug dealer by night, who is doing everything he can to take care of his little sister, Tina (Storm Reid). Things get complicated with his boss, Angelo (Dulé Hill), forcing him to find a way to escape his hardship with his sister and a girl he gains feelings for, who goes by Holly (Seychelle Gabriel).
I know that may not sound like much, it seems like any other movie set in the hood, but JD Dillard has something up his sleeve. This isn’t like any other urban drama, it is actually more along the lines of a superhero origin story. Bo has physically enhanced himself as a way to make his magic tricks more impressive, the science of which is about as ridiculous as you think it is, but the real magic trick here is that JD Dillard actually pulls it off. Granted, a lot of this has to do with the fact that the film never lingers on the science and fantastical elements of the story; it is far more interested and focused on the personal struggles of Bo taking care of his sister without having their parents around. Like Raimi’s Spider-Man films, Sleight nails the feeling of how even the most talented or gifted individuals will feel the pressure of the comparatively mundane elements of their environment, and their day-to-day struggles.
It’s worth noting that I don’t make comparisons to Raimi’s Spider-Man films lightly. Sleight may not have the same razzle-dazzle of Sam Raimi’s filmmaking, it does have his hopeless sincerity and earnestness that is totally devoid of cynicism and brings a sense of wonder and joy to the experience. And while Sleight is by no means a lighthearted film, but it has that same embracing of inherit dopiness, and broad emotional strokes. It captures the small, quiet moments of happiness between Bo and his loved ones in a way that is achingly endearing.
This focus on character is where Jacob Latimore really shines. His performance is full of sensitivity and emotional vulnerability; layered with the understated confidence and charm that he uses as a front when he does his work, either dealing or performing. It’s complex, but it feels so effortless. It doesn’t take long before you realize that you care so deeply about his character and root for him to find a way out of his current situation. I can’t remember the last time I got behind a character so quick, and it is pretty much all due to how well Jacob Latimore delicately carries the material, since one false note could’ve easily brought the whole thing down. The other performances are also quite good, the real additional standout being Dulé Hill, who is playing against type as the main drug kingpin his particular section of LA. He brings a swagger and dark humor that breathes so much life into what could have just been an unmemorable and one note character.
If Sleight falls short in any aspect, it’s really in small imperfections. Some moments certainly showed the budget limitations, not a lot of attention is really given to a subplot regarding Holly’s abusive mother, the third act feels like it’s in a bit of a hurry to finish so the film can stay at a lean 90 minutes. It’s mostly the kind of stuff you’d expect in a directorial debut (although, technically, JD Dillard is credited as a co-director for a 2006 film called Judy Goose, but since it was over a decade ago and there’s only nine votes on IMDb, I’m not counting it). Sleight plays things as simple and as broad whenever it can, and while it might leave you wanting for a bit more meat on the bones, it’s still incredibly effective where it counts.
I know the current word-of-mouth on Sleight is only mildly positive at best, but I really think Sleight is something special. It’s plays with multiple film genres forcing JD Dillard to balance the appropriate tones from scene to scene, and he actually pulls it off. I was waiting for a moment that didn’t work on some level, and that moment never came. It has a certain comic book corniness that I love, and it miraculously works alongside the urban drama. And it works because it isn’t afraid to enter melodrama, or risk being corny, it is so confident in what it’s doing that it works through sheer conviction, much like Bo as a character. Even at its most stylish moments, the filmmaking never gets in the way of character, allowing the emotional throughline to really pay off in spades. I left the theater in wonderment and surprise. It’s been reported that JD Dillard is in the works to helm a remake of The Fly, and as sacrilegious as it sounds, I’m all up for it. He can make whatever the hell he wants, as far as I’m concerned, and I will absolutely be there for it, and so should you.