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.