Slinging pot and tagging walls high above the city, Gotham graffiti artists Malcolm and Sofia begin Adam Leon’s “Gimme the Loot” as miscreants and end it as heroes — not in the epic sense they envisioned (their goal is to “bomb the apple” at Citi Field), but simply for etching their names on our hearts along the way. Feeding on the energy of its non-pro cast, this indelible slice-of-life follows the two teens on a freewheeling journey through the streets. The stakes may be low, but the experience is authentic, kicking off a likely healthy fest run with SXSW’s jury prize.
Looking out over the roofs of New York, Malcolm (Ty Hickson) and Sofia (Tashiana Washington) see a city that belongs to other people — people with jobs and property and opportunities. What those people don’t have is spray paint. And so this two-person tagging team claims the nearest wall, which happens to be on another gang’s turf. The next day, they return to find that their rivals, the Woodside Crew, have taken it back, plastering their work with Mets logos.
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Fed into a studio plot-generating computer, such an affront would be grounds for a street fight, or maybe even a dance-off. But Leon subscribes to a scrappier, more realistic style, using a 20-year-old stunt, in which graffiti writers nailed the giant apple that pops up when the home team scores at Shea Stadium, as the jumping-off point for the platonic couple’s plans. If Citi can put its name on the Mets’ home field, why can’t Malcolm and Sofia do the same?
The setup is unclear, but somehow, Malcolm figures the apple will be theirs if they can just raise $500. To watch Sofia’s eyes widen at the figure — as if someone had just added a silent “million” to the end — is to realize how their life exists on a completely different order of magnitude from that of the characters who have populated get-rich-quick pics for more than a century.
As the two hustlers set about nicking spray-paint cans, selling shoes and otherwise taking advantage of anyone they can to make a fast buck, “Gimme the Loot” shows it really is just the two of them against the world. Though their methods fall on the wrong side of the law, under the circumstances, they’re actually quite resourceful.
Like a modern-day Morris Engel, Leon follows real kids on the streets of New York, fully aware that if he finds the right cast, the city itself will bring their story to life. The setting makes the film bigger, but the two leads make it work. Malcolm is just dumb enough to be endearing, which takes the edge off his scheme to seduce a pretty white stoner named Ginnie (Zoe Lescaze) and steal her jewelry collection, while Sofia’s a quick thinker, cutting him down to size with comebacks like, “You couldn’t seduce a prostitute if you had hundreds all in your hand!”
While Leon’s script can’t help but be episodic as the characters scheme their way out of one scrape after another, their shenanigans are compulsively watchable, brimming with enough details to make this modest film grow large in the memory. After two drug dealers chase Malcolm out of Ginnie’s apartment, the shoeless teen goes walking around Manhattan in his socks, and when the Woodside Crew corners Sofia, they pin her down and tag the front of her T-shirt.
These two friends weather such humiliations well, and Leon leaves room for humor throughout. Most of the time, the cast plays the repartee so naturally that it feels spontaneous, even during passages so clever they could make Quentin Tarantino jealous. Jonathan Miller’s dynamic lensing mirrors the characters’ natural charisma without resorting to that obnoxious fake-shake style, while composer Nicholas Britell brings some old-school funk to his score. Like the incident that inspired it, Leon’s film could have gone down 20 years ago, and yet, it’s the prospect of seeing what the director does next that feels most exciting.