Sleight—which opened in wide release last Friday to little fanfare—is a minor film with major virtues: tenderness, imagination, and a strong grasp of character and setting. It takes place in working-poor Los Angeles, and one of its strengths is how it grounds the story in a palpable sense of economic desperation. The story features a young hustler who winds up in over his head—a conflict familiar from classic film noir—yet J.D. Dillard (directing a script he wrote with Alex Theurer) makes the archetypal premise feel fresh. The hustler is not an ordinary grifter, but a street magician, and his magic skills prove useful in getting him out of sticky situations. Moreover, his magic tricks are cool to watch—Dillard uses them to punctuate the story much like song-and-dance numbers punctuate a musical.
Bo (Jacob Latimore, in a charismatic lead performance) is a recent high school graduate who turned down a college scholarship to take care of his little sister. (Their parents are both deceased.) When Sleight begins, Bo is supporting her by performing street magic during the day and selling drugs at night. In both jobs he’s personable with his clientele and good at making money. Dillard shows him navigating LA with confidence, making connections with his customers and impressing them with sleight-of-hand tricks. His customers (including former Chicagoan Cameron Esposito, who turns in a nice supporting performance as a nightclub manager) view him as a friend, and his supplier, Angelo (Dulé Hill), takes a paternal interest in him. Bo is able to make ends meet, but just barely. He has no savings, and the threat of poverty hangs over him.
Sleight neither glorifies nor demonizes selling drugs. Dillard presents the act as a job, albeit a very risky one. Early on in the film, Bo gets stopped by the police on a street corner late at night, reminding us that he could go to jail at any time for his activities. (In a clever twist, he makes the drugs he’s carrying disappear when the cops are searching him.) Bo doesn’t use drugs himself—he views them strictly as merchandise. Perhaps he could find another job that wasn’t so dangerous, but the costs of rent and supporting his sister’s education are high, and without a college degree he has few career options. Thrust prematurely into adulthood, Bo approaches dealing as the best solution for handling his financial responsibilities.
He finds a kindred spirit in a young woman named Holly (Seychelle Gabriel), whom he meets one day while performing magic tricks in front of her workplace. Holly is working her way through community college and living with her mother. On their second date, Holly confesses that her mother is an alcoholic and abusive as well; her home life is no less stable than his. She takes a shine to Bo’s little sister and the kindly neighbor who comes by to babysit, and within hours of meeting they find common ground and form a familial bond. (One of the nice details of Sleight is that the female characters, even Bo’s little sister, are presented as resilient, articulate, and smart.) Sensing a good opportunity with Holly, Bo swears to get out of dealing drugs and better himself.
Of course this is easier said than done. Angelo wants Bo to take a more active role in his criminal enterprise, and the new responsibilities frighten the young hero. In one scene, Angelo takes Bo along with his henchmen to intimidate a rival drug dealer; in another, he forces Bo to chop off the rival’s hand with a butcher knife. With these developments Dillard makes Bo’s drug dealing seem like a life-or-death struggle, escalating the tension of what had seemed like a manageable job. Bo decides after the hand-chopping incident that the next week will be his last selling drugs. He attempts to double-cross Angelo by cutting a kilo of cocaine with baking soda so he can sell double the amount to make a healthy profit for himself. Angelo finds out about this, however, and demands that Bo pay him $45,000 for the cross, setting the stage for Sleight‘s suspenseful final act.
Many important scenes of the film—in this section and elsewhere—take place at night, as Bo traverses the city to meet his customers and, later on, run from his pursuers. Like Jacques Tourneur’s Nightfall or Michael Mann’s Collateral, Sleight makes nocturnal LA seem like it’s bustling with danger, and like these films, it finds a certain doomed beauty in the environment as well. It’s an atmospheric work, conveying Bo’s sense of entrapment through its use of urban locations and harsh streetlights. And yet the dark mood doesn’t overwhelm the film’s tenderness. Bo remains a sympathetic character throughout, and his relationships with the women in his life stand in contrast to his contentious relationship with Angelo. (Latimore’s rapport with Gabriel is especially moving.) This bigheartedness distinguishes Sleight from other recent low-budget genre items—of all the film’s virtues, it may be the most integral to its success.