Co-helming/writing team DeMane Davis and Khari Streeter made a precocious feature debut with 1997 Sundance preem “Black & White & Red All Over,” which poured considerable stylistic invention onto an essentially dialogue-driven, single-setting chamber piece. Demonstrating the same confident craftsmanship with a higher budget and more conventional narrative, their soph effort, “Lift,” mixes criminal intrigue and character drama with solid results — albeit without developing either aspect enough to render an engaging film truly riveting. Toplining Kerry Washington (“Save the Last Dance”) as a buppie with a talent for high-end shoplifting, polished pic awkwardly falls between arthouse and mainstream terrain as a theatrical proposition; it’s likely to fare best as a homevid item.
Poised, flapper-bobbed, always immaculately dressed, Niecy (Washington) projects an upper-class insouciance we soon realize is a carefully rehearsed act. She works at a tony Boston department store, expecting little credit for her display designs among competitive, catty co-workers.
Revenge is sweet, however, and comes often: Niecy’s “other job” consists of regularly “boosting” expensive jewelry and couture from area stores. Some merchandise she resells on a personal black market, some she keeps. But it’s clearly the thrill of role-playing transgression that fuels this habit, one as addictive — not to mention hazardous — as any drug.
She’s urged to quit by steady b.f. Angelo (Eugene Byrd), whose own petty marijuana dealing she hypocritically rails against — though he’s more ready to go legit than Niecy is. Life-changing decisions must be made, however, as pressure builds on several fronts. For one, Niecy discovers that she’s pregnant, raising questions about her commitment to Angelo and vice versa.
Meanwhile, a visiting store supervisor takes admiring notice of her 9-to-5 work, telling Niecy she’s talented enough to build a real career — and offering a fast-track NYC job as the first step.
Then there’s the perennial tension between Niecy and her brittle, glamorous mother, Elaine (Lonette McKee), a woman who has clearly passed on her values — all about looking good, playing the game and acquiring luxurious material possessions — but no sense of self-worth or familial support. Niecy does get the latter from a loving grandma (Barbara Montgomery). But the insecurity fostered by an embittered, manipulative and distant single mom keeps Niecy on a treadmill, always seeking ways to win — or buy — Elaine’s withheld affections.
To the latter end, she decides to make a gift of a very expensive, fine-gem necklace Elaine has admired in public. But this won’t be a simple theft; it will require accomplices to circumnavigate the first-class jeweler’s security setup. For help, Niecy must swallow her pride and approach Christian (Todd Williams), a serious player whose operations involve large-scale, armed jobs. He has cast a lascivious eye on her for some time, wanting to add Niecy to his professional crew — and his roster of bedroom playmates. Enlisting his assistance places her in a risky situation, one that spirals out of control when the planned robbery goes awry.
Script’s core messages about respecting your potential, the perils of a consumerist society, etc., are underplayed but still rather obvious, with few surprises and just modest suspense arising as story arcs toward Niecy’s having to face the consequences of her decisions. Yet little here feels simply pat until final sequence, which rigs a mother-daughter reconciliation far more formulaic than felt.
That relationship is easily the most intriguing one here, and veteran performer McKee is always an arresting presence. But her appearances are too few, her character’s complexities suggested rather than explored; there’s some payoff in a late confrontation at grandma’s house, albeit not enough to leave viewers emotionally satisfied.
Other perfs deftly flesh out characters in the various depths that they are written and resist the kind of showiness that might throw pic’s midtempo, thoughtful tenor off balance. Washington manages to limn Niecy’s wary, intelligent reserve without becoming too insular, or succumbing to fashion-plate postures — great as she looks in myriad cannily chosen threads, the exquisite good taste always has a pointed, masquerading undercurrent.
Filmmaking likewise favors a stylish restraint quite different from helmers’ cheap but flashier first feature, with a burnished look to David Phillips’ color lensing. Good use is made of Boston locations, including various upmarket retail establishments. Least effective directorial gambit is occasional fantasy scenes where designer-draped Niecy swoons like Cinderella at the ball — intended critique of commodity-based values, implicit elsewhere, grows labored in these misfired segs.