A radical expansion of their well-received 2014 short “Bag Man,” siblings Jonathan and Josh Baker’s debut feature “Kin” returns to the earlier film’s gritty, somewhat downbeat juvenile character study, while expanding the fantasy action it deployed as a surprise ending. The results are, in artistic terms, a modest success. In commercial terms, it’s a dicier prospect — viewers expecting the kind of bigger-budget spectacle that typically ensues when a screen teenager stumbles into sci-fi situations may be befuddled by what’s primarily a medium-scaled road trip drama with thriller elements … and a very special ray gun.
While sufficiently offbeat and well-handled to be engaging, “Kin” ends up playing, a bit oddly, as a de facto prequel for an as-yet-nonexistent, and far more grandiose series — à la “Star Wars” — which this hopeful introductory chapter may not rouse enough interest to make happen.
The starting premise is pretty much the same as it was in “Bag Man”: Lonely African-American kid in unhappy domestic circumstances finds a weapon that, at least briefly, can turn him from a nobody into a near-superhero.
In the short, we had no idea how the protagonist got his hands on it. Here, Eli Solinski (Myles Truitt) is surreptitiously pulling copper wire from abandoned buildings for cash in depressed Detroit, supplementing his stingy adopted dad Hal’s (Dennis Quaid) allowance.
One day he’s startled to discover an old factory floor littered with dead combatants in heavy futuristic armor, fleeing when one of them has a scary last spasm of life. Returning later, he finds all the figures vanished — though they’ve left behind one object that reveals itself as a sort of 22nd-century gun with no end of hidden capabilities. He sneaks it home to secretly suss them out.
But home already has enough problems, given the return after six years’ incarceration of Hal’s older biological son Jimmy (Jack Reynor). That ne’er-do-well is hardly welcomed by his tough-loving father (apparently mom died some time ago), and they’re soon at each others’ throats once again. Worse, Jimmy is heavily in hock to local crime boss Taylor Balik (James Franco) for protection during his time in stir. Felon status precluding the likelihood of any decent legit employment, while Taylor threatens grievous bodily harm to all the Solinskis without immediate payment, Jimmy decides his only option is to rob the safe at dad’s construction job.
This goes awry, of course, with mortal losses on both the Solinski and Balik sides. Jimmy must go on the lam with Eli, telling the latter it’s their “vacation” is an improbably dad-approved fraternal bonding experience. They head westward towards Tahoe (their late mother’s favorite getaway), Jimmy proving to have poor quasi-parental instincts when he sneaks little bro into a strip club en route.
There, they get in trouble (or rather drunken Jimmy does), but also acquire an additional traveling companion in fed-up stripper Milly (Zoë Kravitz). What this uneasily allied trio doesn’t realize is that they are already pursued by two factions: hellbent-for-vengeance Taylor with his small army of Hell’s Angels types, and two heavily armored time and/or space travelers who want their weapon back.
That little item comes in handy in a few hectic situations — the vaporizing-beam way, sometimes taking out entire walls along with bad people. These set pieces are well orchestrated, getting larger as the story progresses. Still, “Kin” is a dysfunctional-family drama with a fantasy twist, set in various downwardly mobile American settings — rather than an action fantasy with more-realistic trappings than usual. It’s to the credit of the Bakers, screenwriter Daniel Casey, and the solid cast that this character-based core does hold the movie together, mostly sidestepping pat sentimentality and too-easy narrative solutions.
That is, until the very end, when a big reveal (incorporating a cameo from executive producer Michael B. Jordan) pushes “Kin” into a giant leap — one with the somewhat disconcerting effect of retroactively turning the preceding 90-plus minutes into a mere prelude for a very different kind of movie.
One assumes the Bakers actually want to make that movie (or movies). Whether anyone will let them is a good question, since it would presumably involve considerably higher expense than this Earth-bound, backroads first chapter. The best hope probably lies in “Kin” gradually acquiring a loyal fanbase through home-format viewings. The immediate green-lighting of any followups would seem a real long shot, given the low expectations for this Lionsgate pickup’s Labor Day theatrical launch.
“Introduced” here (though already a theater and small-screen veteran), Truitt is effective if a tad monotonous in his emphasis on motherless Eli’s cautious, distrustful sides. More than making up the difference in character color are Reynor and Kravitz, who both bring nuanced warmth and humor to characters that might’ve easily played as clichés. Franco brings a more mordant humor to a role he otherwise plays seriously, and effectively, as a violent psychotic. Prominently billed Carrie Coon has just a smallish, somewhat gratuitous role at the climax as an FBI agent.
Primarily shot in Ontario, the film nonetheless has a convincing heartland U.S. feel thanks to strong location choices and design contributions. Music supervisor Chris Mollere adds some intriguing soundtrack flavors (the weirdest detail being nutcase Taylor’s love of Joni Mitchell’s sole Top 10 hit “Help Me”), though it must be said that the theoretically inspired decision to entrust veteran Scottish rock band Mogwai with the original score doesn’t result in anything as special as one might have hoped.