Some new directors announce themselves with a splashy opening scene, but J.D. Dillard prefers to wow you with an unforgettable finale. In his feature debut Sleight, with only minutes left on the clock, he delivers a climactic action scene that’s elegant and immensely satisfying — and also nothing like anything in the 80-some minutes that came before it. It’s also not 100 percent new; Dillard has taken elements from many familiar forebears (most notably Iron Man and X-Men) and filtered them through his own moody sensibility. But in the moment, it feels miraculously fresh.
In fact, the same could be said of the rest of the movie, to varying degrees of freshness. Sleight follows Bo (Jacob Latimore), a street magician who deals drugs to take care of his younger sister. From the beginning we learn that Bo is no ordinary magician: He’s implanted a homemade electromagnet in his arm to assist with some of his illusions. This is the first borderline fantastical element in what is otherwise a methodically paced, naturalistic drama, shot mostly in the golden sodium-lamp light of L.A. at night. It’s intriguing; one wishes more elements would join it sooner.
Instead, most of the film details an increasingly impossible situation for Bo — first, he’s goaded by his charismatic kingpin boss Angelo (Dulé Hill) into cutting off a rival’s hand. The incident spurs his renewed impatience to quit his night job, and he starts cutting his drugs to make enough money to get out of the business. When Angelo finds out, he kidnaps Bo’s sister and holds her for ransom, with some generous interest. Much of Sleight is watching Bo crawl out of deeper and deeper debt. The sequences of him shocking and delighting pedestrians with his magic tricks are much more satisfying and character building; alas, you can’t pay off a drug lord with tips.
If there’s one weakness to Sleight, that’s it: Its balance is skewed too much in favor of a somewhat sleepy smart-kid-in-over-his-head narrative, and not enough toward the film’s more interesting juxtapositions. If you came for an indie Now You See Me, you might be disappointed: The card tricks and illusions are few and far between. Bo, as evidenced by the Houdini poster hanging in his bedroom, is an escape artist at heart, and while the metaphor is a clever one, any escape act has spells where it doesn’t feel like much is going on.
But Sleight is also a superhero origin story, and like any origin story it knows it has to take its time setting up everything about the superhero that isn’t super. The film lives and dies by Latimore’s performance, which is quiet and ever-shifting. There’s a vulnerability to him, and an easygoing charm seemingly perfect for driving around all night interacting with strangers while they buy their molly. There are volumes to this kid, and a deep loneliness that he never quite allows himself to dwell on. When he begins formulating his big plan to defeat Angelo and get his sister back, you sit up, and start rooting for him in a way that feels emotionally rooted. Maybe the slow burn is worth it.
But when the fireworks begin, you can feel Dillard flex, and the fun of it all dwarfs the rest of the film. What are films besides magic tricks — especially films at this budget level? There are multiple sequences in Sleight where we see Bo’s sidewalk audience in a series of close-ups, reacting in OMG slow motion to his tricks: slack-jawed, jumping out of their skin, palms slapped to foreheads in bewilderment. Sometimes we don’t even see the trick they’re reacting to. The important thing is the belief suspended, even for a moment — a fleeting instance where the audience forgets themselves. It takes a little while to get there, but Dillard ultimately pulls it off. And he’s smart enough to not show us Bo’s final creation, only the incredulous, enchanted look on his girlfriend’s face.