When an actor surprises you, it’s magical. Dulé Hill was a steady TV presence from The West Wing through Psych. (I hear he’s on Ballers, and surely being on Ballers is more fun than watching Ballers.) But in Sleight, Hill’s a revelation of freaky-funny charisma. He plays Angelo, a local Los Angeles drug kingpin. Angelo carries himself like somebody giving a business seminar. “You gotta lead by example,” he explains to his protégé dealer Bo (Jacob Latimore). Angelo comes off friendly, but don’t make him angry. Another dealer encroaches on his territory, and Angelo’s men bring him in. Blade in hand, voiced laced with malice but also genuine curiosity, Angelo asks this man who crossed him, “Are you right handed or left handed?” Two minutes later, there’s only one option.
Hill’s not in the movie enough, unfortunately. Sleight is the story of Bo, a teen struggling to earn money. By day, he’s a street magician in Los Angeles, working rare foot-traffic neighborhoods like Larchmont. By night, he sells Angelo’s drugs. Bo lost his mom last year, and he’s taking care of his little sister. He’s also got a secret, a secret that is simultaneously the most marketable part of Sleight and its most ruinous concept.
Latimore’s a rising star, and he embodies Bo’s weight-of-the-world stress and his street-performer flirtatiousness. You figure out too quickly where the movie’s going with Bo and Angelo. This is the kind of trope-y crime film where someone gets in too deep, and someone says “That’s enough money to get out.” But director J.D. Dillard and his cinematographer Ed Wu shoot a gray nighttime Los Angeles stripped of artifice. And Sasheer Zamata and Seychelle Gabriel give fine supporting turns as Bo’s neighbor and the girl who catches his eye.
Sleight‘s real problem—this could be a spoiler, but it’s all anyone seems to be talking about—is that it isn’t just a cliché crime film. It’s a cliché superhero origin story. Bo’s a street magician, but he’s also got powers. The nature of those powers are initially mysterious and then splendidly absurd—there’s talk of a “feedback oscillator.” Given how corporate and one-percent-ish most superhero movies feel, Sleight earns points for grounding its hero in a real-feeling world. But there’s a sense of contrivance, too, and as the film becomes more about superpowers, it also loses its particularity, and becomes a weirdly expository melodrama. (“How do I get nine grand by midnight tonight?”) You’d hope that a film like this could put a bold new spin on the superhero story. The reverse is true: Here we are in 2017, and even our nifty low-budget crime movies are building a cinematic universe, and saving the best stuff for the sequel. C