“Sleight” (2017): Impressive Shuffling of the Cards Dealt

Sleight is not a wholly original exercise. J.D. Dillard‘s sci-fi crime tale doesn’t really break much new ground in terms of the story its telling. The beats are often familiar, recalling superhero origin tales that have been rampant in the last few years. Of course, the major difference here is the scale involved. Given this is a Blumhouse production, Sleight doesn’t have the massive budget to provide us with dazzling city destruction or an explosive battle. Instead, Dillard takes advantage of its smaller stakes and makes them larger on an emotional scale. Sleight gives more power to the characters than the situations. With that in mind, Sleight ends up being more earth shattering despite the lack of Earth destroying stakes.

sleight-lightReally, Sleight makes the interpersonal stakes of our hero the world it revolves around. We get to know our protagonist Bo (Jacob Latimore), a young engineer who throws away a scholarship to raise his younger sister Tina (Storm Reid) after their mother dies. It’s a noble goal that one can understand him pursuing, but the means from which he does so make him a complicated character. The balance of drug dealing and pursuing his interests in magic conflict in a wonderful fashion. One where you’re not sure how much you can be on his side given the horrible things he’s done and the risks he’s putting the people in his life into. Latimore helps to make Bo consistently endearing throughout, even when he commits some brutal actions and dumb decisions. All of them feel motivated by a desire to get out and leave this awful life behind.

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The rest of this small yet effective cast manages to give a lot more insight into their characters despite smaller amounts of screentime. Particularly with the antagonistic force of Sleight Dulé Hill. Hill – whom most would probably recognize as one of the two leads from the procedural TV detective show Psych – completely washes away his nice guy demeanor. Imbuing a local drug kingpin with a sense of intelligence, but a temper that’s massive and unpredictable. He presents all these traps for a life of crime to Bo as an opportunity to progress. To be a part of something bigger than himself. It recalls the opportunities Bo has left behind and gives him the illusion of upward momentum that could get him out, only to realize that Hill is merely pulling him further into that mess.

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Sleight as a story clearly only needs the female characters to support Bo, with any forward momentum in their lives being from merely through having conversations with our lead. Yet, Sasheer Zamata and Seychelle Gabriel provide endearing performances that give their roles far more vitality and heart than what was originally written for them. Sleight pays particular attention to the growth of Gabriel and Latimore’s relationship, an understated meet-cute that evolves into something more. Both find a sense of growth and support from each other that’s desperately need in their lives. While we only see this from Latimore’s perspective, the reciprocation shown in the chemistry between the two for Seychelle is still emotionally effective.

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As for the genre thrills, Sleight uses them sparingly yet effectively. The magic on display during Bo’s performances is small but dazzling. There’s a grounded sensibility to all the tricks that works within the logic presented of his mechanical engineering background. Admittedly, Sleight really pushes the limits for suspension of disbelief. The gimmick of what Bo has done to his own body raises a lot of questions, namely in how any of it was truly accomplished by someone in a rather destitute state. Yet, the conviction of the characters makes the powers on display quite impactful. The smallest movements have the most lasting effect.

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Speaking of effects, the special effects in Sleight have just the right amount of subtlety to them. Cascaded enough by lighting without hiding the motive and pay off behind them. Even without using the sci-fi element, there’s a rather chilling scene involving amputation that – while implausible on more than a few levels – still chills because of what it means for the characters and how they directly deal with it. All of this is to say that Sleight never loses sight of motivation or character even as the logic leaps grow wider and wider. It only really loses some of the grounding with elements like this, but not enough to take one out of the film. Regardless, it shows J.D. Dillard is a potential creative force to be reckoned with in the near future. Showing he has an authentic perspective, but with enough genre flare to have a diverse career. If he can pull off something this solid on a $250,000 budget, there’s no telling how far he can go with Hollywood money behind him.

Rating: 3.5 Out of 5 Moving Metal Objects

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