Film Review: ‘Deidra & Laney Rob a Train’

'Deidra & Laney Rob a Train'
Courtesy of Netflix

The combined star quality of Ashleigh Murray and Rachel Crow is bigger than this slight but perfectly affable Netflix family farce.

Back in 2011, America — well, the small fraction of America that watched Simon Cowell’s botched U.S. transfer of “The X Factor” — saw 13-year-old Rachel Crow break down in wailing fashion when she was booted from the tacky TV singing contest. It was a distressing sight, but it was hard to weep for her: Better things clearly awaited the charismatic, camera-ready kid, and that promise comes to fruition in Netflix’s peppy, family-friendly escapade “Deidra & Laney Rob a Train.” As teen sisters resorting to palatably desperate measures to get by when their single mom lands behind bars, Crow and fellow up-and-comer Ashleigh Murray make an infectiously spirited duo in director Sydney Freeland’s sophomore feature; exuberant but not obnoxious, their combined energy and ingenuity is enough to steam the film through some off-track script wobbles.

An odd fit for Sundance’s avant-garde-inclined NEXT strand when it premiered in January, this Disney Channel-esque diversion should reach its optimum audience when it hits Netflix on March 17. For its two fresh, characterful leading ladies, meanwhile, “Deidra & Laney Rob a Train” is hopefully just an early stop en route to greater starring vehicles.

Deidra Tanner (Murray) also has her eye on a brighter future. A gifted high school senior who runs intellectual rings around her peers — and reaps the benefits by doing their homework for cash — she dreams of leaving her drab Idaho hometown behind for an Ivy League college, defying what she describes as a generations-spanning family motto of “more is not for us.” Already challenged by the family’s hardscrabble poverty, that dream hits a further snag when her mother Marigold (Danielle Nicolet) is imprisoned for “domestic terrorism” following a violent mental breakdown — like much of what transpires in this airy, mostly gritless romp, the events sound rather more solemn on paper than they prove in practice.

That leaves Deidra in charge of her younger sister, the shy, self-conscious Laney (Crow), and their kid brother Jet (Lance Gray, rather too conveniently sidelined for long stretches of the action). To keep hope alive and Child Protection Services at bay, Deidra and Laney needs to come by a few grand fast — and it won’t come from their deadbeat dad Chet (a drolly engaging David Sullivan), a low-flying railway worker whose idea of fatherhood is to be “there when they need me, gone when they don’t.” What’s a girl to do? Well, the title explains itself, as the sisters hatch an elaborate but increasingly fraught plan to loot goods from the nighttime freight trains that pass by their edge-of-town matchbox of a house.

At their best, the ensuing shenanigans proceed a little like Mark Twain rewritten for a diverse millennial audience, pitching spunky, enterprising kids against a host of less competent, more caricatured adults — both well-meaning (Sasheer Zamata’s spacy school guidance counselor) and cartoonishly villainous (Tim Blake Nelson’s pettily vindictive rail-network detective). Neophyte scribe Shelby Farrell’s lively original screenplay keeps things rattling toward a farcical pile-up of junior-size crimes and misdemeanors — don’t seek too many ethics lessons in a light caper where an awful lot of wrongs seemingly add up to a right. If anything, the film suffers a bit from over-plotting. A side strand involving Laney’s reluctant participation in a teen beauty pageant is worthily intended to spotlight her self-worth issues, but plays out in rushed, slightly mean-spirited fashion, with an emphasis on catty female rivalry that sits at odds with its general air of sisterly celebration.

Freeland, whose far tougher, more adult-focused debut “Drunktown’s Finest” drew on her Native American heritage, directs with a light touch — occasionally inserting some neat visual trickery amid more predictable camera setups and pop-scored montages. (The soundtrack selections are all over the map: Liam Lynch doesn’t fit very comfortably into the girls’ world, though Crow gets to show off her souped-up R&B chops.)

Refreshing as it is to see such a multiracial ensemble without any on-screen comment, the film touches only subtly on social realities — given its target market, this is a very clean-scrubbed vision of middle-American poverty, where lean household budgets are drawn up on brightly colored construction paper. What’s most impressive about Murray and Crow’s winning performances, however, is that they keeping matters suitably upbeat while projecting a hint of the weariness and desperation we can’t quite see in the set-dressing.

Film Review: 'Deidra & Laney Rob a Train'

Reviewed online, London, March 10, 2017. (In Sundance Film Festival — NEXT.) Running time: 92 MIN.

Production

A Netflix release and presentation of a Storefront Pictures, General Population production. Producers: Susan Cartsonis, Nick Moceri. Executive producers: Randy Kiyan, Ian Bricke, Ifunanya Maduka.

Crew

Director: Sydney Freeland. Screenplay: Shelby Farrell. Camera (color), Quyen Tran. Editor: Michael Taylor.

With

Ashleigh Murray, Rachel Crow, Sasheer Zamata, David Sullivan, Danielle Nicolet, Tim Blake Nelson, Missi Pyle, Myko Olivier, Arturo Castro, Kinna McInroe.

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  1. legitniqabi says:

    I agree with Frankie’s comment 100%!

    Not only is this movie a fantastic feel-good comedy that the entire family can enjoy, it also showcases strong, BLACK female leads overcoming hardships and making the very best out of tough situations. Something Mr. Lodge does not seem to be able to grasp as evidenced by his last paragraph in this hideous review wherein he calls the movie “clean-scrubbed” as if poor, BLACK family is synonymous with the dirty underbelly of society.

    I guess he didn’t get the memo that being poor and black isn’t always sad and dreary. Poor black families dream big, love hard, keep their kids on straight paths, and even make household budgets on brightly colored construction paper! Who’d a thunk?! Not Guy Lodge, apparently!

    It is also highly offensive to assume that these girls wouldn’t listen to the likes of Liam Lynch, just because *AGAIN*, they’re poor and black. Poor black people listen to more than just RnB and hip hop. I’m going to assume Mr. Lodge also didn’t get that memo.

    This movie is SO much more than ‘Disney channel-esque.” This movie represents a changing landscape in American cinema. It represents the recognition that people of color in film are more than slapstick comedy, more than gritty dramas about tough inner city life, more than fodder for movies about white saviors, more than the stereotypical roles white people have attempted to pigeonhole black folks into for decades!

    Guy Lodge, like most older white males, is completely out of touch with anything beyond his own white worldview.

    Variety, please have people of color review films that are about people of color. Not white British dudes! Ugh!

  2. frankie h. says:

    This review is the worst. The movie is great. It’s light-hearted and feelgood, as movies are allowed to be. There are levels to the existence of the film, and the casting, that Lodge doesn’t discuss because he just doesn’t get it. Unsurprisingly, he doesn’t engage the strides made here by the super talented two young leads, Ashleigh Murray and Rachel Crow, but rather dismisses the film as “multiracial” (coded) and focuses on every picky negative thing he can think of to produce this tepid review with lukewarm writing. He has the nerve to call the pageant scene “mean-spirited,” but I guess it’s fine to kickoff a review reminding everyone reading it of the co-star’s 13-year old onscreen moment of humiliation? Sure. Not mean at all. Move along folks, nothing to see in this review.

  3. keith C says:

    hardly a decade apart in age; google puts them at 2 years apart.

  4. Jake says:

    How was “The X Factor” any worse than all the other “talent” shows?

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