SLEIGHT (2016)


Studio:       BH Tilt
Director:    J.D. Dillard
Writer:       J.D. Dillard, Alex Theurer
Producer:  Eric B. Fleischman, Sean Tabibian, Alex Theurer
Stars:     Jacob Latimore, Seychelle Gabriel, Sasheer Zamata, Storm Reid, Cameron Esposito, Mane Andrew, Frank Clem, Brandon Johnson, Michael Villar, Dule Hill

Review Score:


Forced into dealing drugs to support his little sister, a young street magician struggles to escape a life of crime.



With their parents deceased, the burden of caring for little sister Tina now falls squarely on big brother Bo’s back.  To make ends meet, Bo’s plan for scrounging up scratch requires him to take concurrent courses down two different paths.

One path involves pursuing his childhood dream of becoming a magician.  Bo doesn’t want to be an ordinary street performer panhandling for a tourist’s pocket change forever.  Bo is so serious about his goal that he carves out a piece of his arm to install an electromagnet with which he manipulates metal and rigged playing cards.  If only he had an equally impressive trick that could heal the infection slowly eating his skin.

The second route turns Bo into a reluctant drug dealer.  Sleight of hand comes through in a clutch when a cop says, “spread ‘em” and Bo simply palms a baggie of coke.  But greater danger comes when his cutthroat boss Angelo moves Bo from selling on the street to doing dirty deeds as an enforcer.

Bo already wanted out.  Faced with demands like hacking off a rival crime lord’s hand, Bo’s clock now ticks faster.  A new romance with Holly, who has homestead troubles of her own, has him optimistic that a better future is in the cards.  But when a scheme to get out from under Angelo’s thumb backfires, two crime crews come looking to draw blood.  And if they can’t get Bo’s, they might go after someone he loves.

Pulling off some magic of its own, “Sleight” creates an illusion of being a bigger movie than its small budget might otherwise allow with less sincere stagecraft.  Co-writer and director J.D. Dillard cuts corners using creativity in a manner that streamlines a cinematic story for a smooth rhythm with minimal fluff.

One such instance has the prologue panning across bric-a-brac like trophies and school certificates while a voicemail plays from a former teacher offering condolences on Bo’s mother’s passing.  In under a minute, Dillard’s minimalist montage establishes Bo’s background and situation without using actors.  “Sleight” also sets up a key second fiddle so his serendipitous reappearance later sticks out as less of a deus ex machina.

Convenient contrivances do get the better of things when fiction is merely functional.  Sasheer Zamata of “Saturday Night Live” has an unrewarding role performing redundant duties as Bo’s conscience, reiterating warnings he already knows.  She is also a surrogate slipped in to explain who watches Tina during the plentiful time when Bo is performing, dealing, stealing, or dating.  That’s as much of a boon to the script as it is to Bo.

That script then asks everyone to turn a blind eye toward scientific logic when Bo’s magnetic apparatus is in play.  The finale alone is a humdinger of impossible physics fit to give Neil deGrasse Tyson a stroke.

“Sleight” knows enough not to fool you, however.  The movie is well aware that viewers are smart enough to see up its sleeve and stare right at the make-believe.  But if we can accept that gamma radiation can turn a doctor into a green monster, we can suspend disbelief about stopping bullets with magnets when it is all in the name of entertainment.

“Sleight” doesn’t delve deep enough to crack underneath its emotional surface, which is what hurts it from really hitting in the heart.  We’ve seen young men like Bo before, and one black eye for Holly doesn’t pack the punch required to bring out a hanky of sympathy.

Yet the movie is more interested in meaningful enjoyment for viewers than cutting into its characters for psychological study.  Naysayers may roll eyes at the prospect of journeying with “another” down on his luck youth struggling to break free of an urban environment.  Bo might be black, but ethnicity doesn’t define the experience for him or for the audience.  Using just a tiny tease of sci-fi, “Sleight” is universally accessible as a nifty dramatic thriller.

“Sleight” has the skeleton of a typical tale featuring a heart of gold youth fighting to escape the crime life he was forced into.  But those bones are given life by a unique skin of subtle fantasy providing a patina of escapist entertainment this sort of story usually doesn’t have.

Review Score:  75