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Sleight skillfully crosses an intimate indie drama with a superhero origin story

It’s a surprisingly complex coming of age drama that shows the great promise of its director and cast.

Jacob Latimore in Sleight
Jacob Latimore in Sleight
Alissa Wilkinson covers film and culture for Vox. Alissa is a member of the New York Film Critics Circle and the National Society of Film Critics.

A friend characterized Sleight to me as J.D. Dillard’s calling card movie, designed and shot for him to drop it straight onto Marvel’s doorstep in the hopes of getting a big-budget superhero movie to direct. My friend wasn’t wrong.

But if Dillard’s plan works, I’ll be glad. Sleight is a rare animal: an intimate coming-of-age drama for grown-ups starring a black teenager that doubles as a cool superhero origin story.

And there are magic tricks, too!

Sleight mashes up several genres, and the result is surprisingly good

Sleight premiered in 2016 at Sundance, and that makes sense: for the first half of the movie, it feels like we’re watching a pretty standard — if well-acted and confidently directed — indie drama, the kind of thing Sundance films are known for.

Jacob Latimore plays Bo, who was left to care for his younger sister Tina (Storm Reid) after his mother died. To support them, he does magic tricks in the park during the day and works for a drug dealer named Angelo (Dulé Hill) at night. That job started out as a stop-gap while he figured out a better, more legal way to support the two of them, but that was a year ago, and now it’s snowballing into violence. Bo’s desperate to get out.

Bo also has a strange device implanted in his right arm near his shoulder. But we don’t discover what it is till much later.

In its first half, Sleight is the story of a kid who’s been knocked down by life and keeps fighting back, and one of the film’s smartest tactics is to introduce us to some of Bo’s more surprising talents and the device in his arm early, then let the story run its course just long enough that we’ve forgotten it isn’t a straightforward, realistic drama before it reintroduces those elements.

Jacob Latimore in Sleight
Jacob Latimore in Sleight

When it takes a turn midway through, though, Sleight becomes something else altogether. Turns out Bo’s a superhero in the Iron Man mold — not magical, but imbued with power mostly because he’s super — super smart and determined. His powers come from his brain (and from science).

But unlike Iron Man, Bo isn’t wealthy. He’s struggling to keep it together and care for his sister with the help of his next-door neighbor Georgi (SNL’s Sasheer Zamata). He doesn’t live in a fancy house or have people swooping in to save the day. Bo is going to spend his life living by his wits, and circumstances keep conspiring against him. His strong moral compass is no match for a world where a black teenager living in a little house with his younger sister has to navigate a minefield of threats, from earning enough money to dodging cops to dodging his boss’s bodyguards.

Sleight isn’t a blatantly political film, but it is subtly revolutionary. There still aren’t many mainstream superhero films with black men, and until Black Panther comes out, none of them have been anchored by black men. Sleight manages to combine the appeal of a superhero origin story with a story that feels real and genuine, and it does so mostly seamlessly, with a talented cast: Latimore and Reid are great, as is Seychelle Gabriel, who plays Holly, the girl Bo shyly asks out. Hill is especially good as a dealer with a lot of bravura and a taste for rather medieval methods of getting back at his enemies. (The violence in Sleight, when it arrives, is well-executed but surprising. Be prepared to cringe.)

Sleight’s coming-of-age story deviates from the usual tropes

Because it combines an origin story with a coming-of-age story, Sleight plays on another familiar movie trope: the teenage hero who doesn’t fit in, then discovers it’s because he’s special, different from his peers, a chosen one.

Jacob Latimore in Sleight
Jacob Latimore in Sleight

But Sleight turns that convention on its head. Yes, Bo is different from his peers, but for two reasons: He has been dealt some harsh blows, and he’s determined to keep going anyhow. Nobody chose him for anything; he knows that if he wants something, he’s going to have to go get it himself.

It’s a smart, realistic twist on the usual teen hero, and Sleight pulls it off confidently. The seams still show at times — this is obviously a low-budget movie — but for the most part, it’s surprising, intriguing, and fun. Somewhat shockingly for a film this assured, Sleight is J.D. Dillard’s first feature film; we should hope it won’t be his last.

Sleight opens in theaters on April 28.

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