You needn’t wait for a long list of executive producers in the closing credits to detect the presence of David Gordon Green hanging over “Dayveon.” Multi-hyphenate Amman Abbasi’s well-intended but distantly ambient debut feature is so palpably in thrall to the Arkansan “George Washington” helmer’s early work that its own authorial voice never rises above a whisper. Centered on a withdrawn, grief-stricken teen seeking acceptance and closure in a picturesque but poverty-blighted stretch of rural Arkansas, this year’s Sundance NEXT opener boasts quiet, unforced performances from a cast of Little Rock locals and some honey-slicked craft contributions — including a richly melodic, piano-led score by the director himself. Yet the more “Dayveon” attempts to up the dramatic and moral stakes of its narrative, the less persuasive it is as idiosyncratic, indigenous storytelling. Exposure beyond the festival circuit could be a challenge, despite such guiding hands as Green and James Schamus.
From the trees to the rocks to his own long-suffering self, 13-year-old Dayveon (Devin Blackmon) deems everything in his dead-end town “stupid” — per a jaggedly poetic internal monologue of blanket resentment that opens the film on its most arresting note. This litany of loathing drawls over jump-cut images of the boy riding his bike through the town’s modest length, toward an exit sign that never materializes. At a superficial level, touring viewers are likely to disagree with his assessment of this blamelessly lush, buzzing southeastern landscape, shot in humidly glowing Academy ratio by Dustin Lane in his first feature assignment. Still, the very real reasons behind Dayveon’s frustrated fury are swiftly made clear: He’s still in mourning for his older brother Trevor, fatally shot in what appear to have been gang-related circumstances two years previously.
With his parents also absent from the scene — it’s implied, at least in the protagonist’s incomplete view, that his mother was driven insane by Trevor’s death — Dayveon’s care falls to his harried sister Kim (Chasity Moore), who is distracted with an infant of her own. Her gentle-giant boyfriend Bryan (Dontrell Bright) makes halting attempts to be the nurturing masculine influence that Dayveon needs, but the boy’s resentment at this perceived intrusion sends him instead into the more abusive embrace of the local Bloods gang. An extended, discomfiting scene that sees him initiated via a brutal “jumping-in” ritual carries a genuine ring of shock, but the ensuing meditations on male violence and its allure in Abbasi and Steven Reneau’s script are more familiar and less revealing, as the film solemnly ponders the camaraderie in criminality among the disenfranchised.
In between stings with the Bloods, Dayveon and his likewise recruited friend Brayden (Kordell “KD” Johnson) dawdle away the long summer days on activities we’d prefer to imagine 13-year-olds pursuing: containing violence within videogames or, more ideally still, playing outdoors in sepia-lit woodland. The disconnect between these disparate, simultaneously occupied boys’ worlds — one of slugs and snails and puppy-dog tails, the other of very real firearms — is an intriguing one.
We’re given little psychological insight, however, into Dayveon’s toggling of the two, and to what degree he recognizes or relinquishes his degree of control in the situation as it escalates tidily in the film’s suddenly plotty final act. (Adolescent sexual curiosity also figures surprisingly little into this particular coming-of-ager.) That detachment of perspective extends to the adult characters: It’s particularly disappointing to see Kim, granted minimal dialogue, presented as little more than a beatific symbol of maternity by the close, rarely shown without her baby in shot. At a push, one could argue this nods to the internal sidelining of women in an already marginalized society, though it does little to counter it.
If there’s a certain thinness of psychology in “Dayveon” — particularly relative to more complex, multi-tasking stories of fringe identity such as “Moonlight” — there are still rewards to seeing the camera reflect communities that have hitherto been largely invisible on screen. Abbasi is uncompromising, for example, in his recording of the ensemble’s strong regional accents, for which a number of outside audiences may take some time to develop an ear. Performances across the board are effectively artless, with Blackmon convincing as our nervously conflicted, interrupted hero. This organic, rough-hewn human element is complemented by the film’s sleeker mise-en-scène: Lane’s manipulation of color is especially sharp, not least in a fight scene that picks out the men in brilliant, bloody red and white against the natural hues of grass and dust.