By day, Bo (Jacob Latimore) is a street magician, wowing passersby with sleight of hand for tips. By night, he slings party drugs in the clubs and on the streets of Los Angeles. He’s also the protective guardian of his sister (Storm Reid), making them two orphaned siblings against the world. In “Sleight,” director J.D. Dillard has created an unlikely superhero origin story, executed with the style, themes and budget of independent cinema.
The central conflict revolves around Bo’s competing livelihoods. Magic is his passion, a calling so strong that he has subjected himself to physical extremes. Inspired by a Venice Beach illusionist who had carved a hole in his hand for an illusion, Bo believes that anyone can do a trick, but the person who’ll do anything is the true magician.
But selling drugs pays the bills, a side hustle that has sucked him in deeper than he ever imagined. His boss, Angelo (Dule Hill), has started to rely on him in ways that test Bo’s morality and identity, and going against the boss is more dangerous than even Bo wagers. Also, Bo’s recently met a cute cupcake salesgirl (Seychelle Gabriel), and he doesn’t think she wants to date the local drug dealer.
The magic is the soul of “Sleight,” while the drugs bring danger to the story. At times, the drug subplot can feel overwrought and inauthentic; as committed as Hill is, it’s hard to buy him as the ruthless Angelo, and the budget limitations are clear during these scenes.
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But Dillard pulls off the most important thing in the film: the character and his journey. Latimore shines in a star-making performance. The high stakes of his entanglement with Angelo force Bo out of his comfort zone, and he relies on his skill with magic to slide out of some sticky situations. However, it becomes far more than just an optical illusion, and as Bo pushes himself to the limit, he makes a breakthrough from sleight of hand to what may be real magic.
The film leaves the supernatural elements ambiguous, only hinting at the possibilities of what could be. It’s a smart move for a film that’s grounded in a gritty reality. But the wisps of real magic that dance around the edges of “Sleight” imbue the film with a fresh, exciting dynamic.
In his feature film debut, Dillard has efficiently used his resources to demonstrate a deft control of character and tone that leaves you wanting more, and curious about what the filmmaker could do with a bigger project. “Sleight” fuses a superhero story with a tough coming-of-age tale, and it enlivens and elevates both genres into something new and different.
Rated R for language throughout, drug content and some violence. 1:30. Fayette Mall.