Here’s a magic trick: let’s show you what’s interesting about “Sleight,” and make it disappear.
J.D. Dillard’s “Sleight” takes its most unique selling point and buries it beneath a generic gangbanger and drug dealer story. It’s a film about a kid with promise and potential whose bad choices cause him to squander it, and the movie can’t avoid making his same mistakes.
Bo (Jacob Latimore) is an honor student turned drug dealer and street performer who specializes in magic tricks. He levitates rings, makes playing cards appear in purses and even hides contraband from the cops.
His secret though is that he has a little assistance. In one scene he’s nursing an infected metallic coil embedded just below his shoulder. He levitates some batteries into a trash can that’s supposed to explain his trick, but it would honestly make more sense if Bo actually had superpowers instead of this science project he’s cooked up.
Regardless, “Sleight” is at its best when Bo actually uses what makes him special to get out of jams or win girls phone numbers. Instead he gets caught trying to escape from his ruthless and sadistic drug dealer boss Angelo (Dule Hill), and the film falls into clichés. Angelo goes from being a congenial dude to being a freak in no time at all. He gives Bo until midnight to pay triple what he owes. And Angelo acts tough in the face of some rival gang members.
For a kid who’s made out to be a boy genius and former honor student, Bo also doesn’t do much that’s particularly smart, or even that redeeming. He forms a bad plan to cheat Angelo, he keeps his little sister oblivious, and he never realizes that Angelo may actually be a violent criminal until he’s in the thick of it.
There are so many structural flaws and characters lacking substance, “Sleight’s” screenplay really needs a kick in the pants. Even as Angelo and his crew are going on raids and getting bloody, the film meanders without Bo’s tricks or how those skills actually advance the story and character.
The only magic “Sleight” finds is in Jacob Latimore’s performance and in its visuals. Latimore’s hushed cadence allows him to rattle off brief monologues about believing in yourself with quiet dignity and mystery. And the cinematography, all in pale blues and a few oranges, suit Latimore’s muted performance. “Sleight’s” DP Ed Wu favors more intimacy and gradual camera movement than frenetic flourishes. In one shot, a woman is holding out a playing card facing toward the camera. As Bo prepares his trick, it slowly rotates to the backside of the card. Bo snaps his fingers, and when the woman turns the card around, it’s a new card. Like Bo, the staging is humble and engrossing rather than empty and stylish.
But there’s no rabbit up Dillard’s sleeve, no twist or surprise that makes good on what initially felt like a superhero story set in South LA. Compared to a film like “Chronicle,” which used its supernatural premise as a metaphor for much more, “Sleight” comes up empty handed.