A visually drab but affecting feature about a mother struggling to cope under highly challenging circumstances, “The Best Thief in the World” refreshingly avoids hand-wringing, breast-beating and most other family-in-crisis cliches, thanks in no small part to Mary-Louise Parker’s firmly anchored performance. A step forward for writer-director Jacob Kornbluth from his more sketch-derived debut “Haiku Tunnel,” this is a modest, appealing film, whose balance of humor, warmth and poignancy may help land small-scale theatrical play en route to Showtime airings.
While “Haiku Tunnel” relied largely on the expansion of pre-existing stage material and the on-camera shtick of Kornbluth’s brother Josh — who shared writing and directing credit — solo effort “The Best Thief” in its quiet, quirky way displays a confident feel for nuanced characters, skillful handling of actors and sensitive observation of the plight of a mother shouldering more than her share. It also boasts a keen eye for the behavior of children in tough family situations.
Unfolding over one summer in the gritty urban environment of Washington Heights, N.Y., and underscored by a propulsive soundtrack of mainly instrumental hip-hop, the story focuses around troubled 11-year-old Izzy (Michael Silverman).
When his father Paul (David Warshofsky) is discharged from the hospital after being paralyzed from a severe stroke, Izzy’s family life is thrown off-balance. His mother Sue (Parker) makes barely enough from her teaching job to cover rent and has no solution in mind for taking care of Paul for after summer, when she’s expected to return to work.
However, she clings to the stubborn hope that Paul will regain his motor skills and lucidity.
Left unsupervised for much of the time while Sue is busy with her two younger children or tending to Paul, Izzy breaks into apartments in their building to explore while neighbors are out. Stealing only occasionally and frequently making a narrow escape without getting caught, Izzy more often simply immerses himself in other people’s worlds or engages in minor acts of sabotage like rearranging furniture while the owners are on vacation.
Tension at home increases when Sue’s controlling mother (Lois Smith) arrives unannounced from Michigan and begins insisting they return home to live with her. Izzy’s frustration pushes him to be increasingly reckless in his break-ins, getting caught and hauled off to the police station. Sue’s pleas to him to keep it together go unheeded and he starts a fire in the building, which threatens the lives of the entire family. But the brush with danger galvanizes Sue to take action and uproot the family toward a new future.
Following her superb work in “Angels in America,” Parker is exceptional as a smart, somewhat brittle woman, who refuses to pander or talk down to her kids, communicating with them often in an exasperated mode but balancing the character’s acerbic wit with real tenderness. Even in Sue’s most fraught moments, the actress keeps the histrionics to a measured minimum.
Newcomer Silverman touchingly conveys the uncomprehending anger and desperate, flailing efforts of a kid unable to articulate his pain as he lurches awkwardly toward adulthood. Stage actress Audra McDonald also registers warmly as Sue’s supportive best friend, and Jelani Jeffries is fresh and natural as her son and Izzy’s buddy.
Neatly assembled in lean, economical scenes, the film captures the textures of the multi-ethnic environment, but lensing on HD video gives it a harsh visual pallor. Kornbluth’s use of a Greek chorus of two pre-teen rappers to divide the story’s chapters is an irritating device that adds nothing to the family drama’s understated emotions.