Slight is right. Arguably the biggest letdown of the 2016 Sundance film festival, J.D. Dillard’s feature debut squanders its high concept — an amateur street magician uses his craft to free himself from the clutches of a maniacal drug dealer — and serves up a low-rent, Nickelodeon-lite version of that story, blowing his chance with corny acting, paint-by-numbers plotting, and a dippy score.
Perhaps Dillard is too young or green to escape the recycled clichés that constitute the bulk of his script (co-written with Alex Theurer), and yet, charitably speaking, “Sleight” shows potential. Not box office potential, mind you, as the Jason Blum-backed, WWE Studios release is bound to disappoint on its too-wide theatrical release, but it heralds the arrival of a new African-American director with dreams of tackling big-budget genre fare (last month, he was in talks to remake “The Fly” for Fox), a talented DP in AFI grad Ed Wu, and a diverse cast of charismatic — if mostly wet-behind-the-ears — young actors.
Jacob Latimore plays Bo, a Los Angeles high school graduate who turned down a college scholarship to take care of his orphaned kid sister Tina (Storm Reid). Since doing magic tricks for tourists doesn’t earn much, Bo resorts to dealing drugs near his home. Knowing that much, you could write the rest of this screenplay, as Dillard has few surprises up his sleeve. In fact, there’s just one worth mentioning: Subscribing to the philosophy that, “anyone can do a trick; doing something no one else can do makes you a magician,” Bo installs an electromagnet into his right shoulder, running wires through his skin to his fingers in order to levitate or move small metal objects.
Staring from there, Dillard could have gone in two directions: either embrace the fantasy element and go wild, or try to pass it off as plausible and focus on selling the realism of such a crazy idea. Sadly, he tries to keep things grounded, which leaves Bo’s tricks feeling silly (he can stop bullets or rip a grill right off your teeth) in a movie where the performances never come anywhere near convincing to start with.
Latimore has charisma, but he’s guilty of that beginner’s mistake of over-pantomiming every emotion. When his girlfriend Holly (Seychelle Gabriel) turns her back to change clothes, instead of sneaking discreet glances, Bo ogles her as a vaudeville clown might, all but tripping over himself. And after stealing money from a local bartender (Cameron Esposito), he breathes a deep sigh of relief, just to ensure that we understand that the coast is now clear.
What kind of magician hopes to fool his audience when he can barely contain his emotions from us? Sneaky as Bo may be with cards, it doesn’t take his quick-to-anger boss Angelo (Dulé Hill) long to figure out that Bo was dumb enough to cut the kilo of cocaine he was entrusted to sell — and now he’s on the hook for $45,000, or else Angelo will be performing a permanent disappearing act on the kid. Bo doesn’t have the money, but he does have his magic, and the ludicrous last reel of the film finds him behaving like an amateur superhero.
Then, without bothering to tie up loose ends, “Sleight” skips forward six months, at which point Bo has improved upon his lame parlor trick. Before we can see it, the credits roll and the film is over. It’s as if Dillard wants to one-up “Chronicle” (which he manages to do in the cinematography department, at least), or else pile on to M. Night Shyamalan’s fast-expanding “Unbreakable” universe (Blum also produced the hit “Split,” after all). But this drug-dealing kid ain’t much of a hero, and frankly isn’t interesting enough to be a villain.
For those who follow such things, last year’s Sundance also debuted the far-better “Dope,” which similarly dealt with the idea that inner-city kids can’t necessarily steer clear of crime in their climb out of poverty, but brought so much detail and specificity to that conflict, the movie felt like a genuine revelation. “Sleight,” by contrast, is like a practice round for all involved — a magic show where you can tell what they’re going for, and yet manage to anticipate every move. With a little luck and a lot more refining, maybe we’ll fall for it next time.