J.D. Dillard’s teen thriller Sleight is about a young magician trying to do something impossible: put his life back together. Bo’s (Jacob Latimore) mother died when the mechanical wiz was a high school senior. Money was always tight. Now it’s strangulating. Instead of accepting an engineering scholarship, Bo’s stuck supporting his little sister Tina (Storm Reid) with street corner hustles. During the day, he entertains L.A. hipsters by making rings levitate and cards disappear for tips. At night, he delivers drugs to the kind of anxious, white-boy nerds who ask if it’s OK to mix molly with cocaine.
Latimore, only 18 when he shot the film, has an innocent, absorbent face. There’s something soft and unformed about him that works with the character. He has one of those great, slow smiles, the one Ryan Gosling used to have before his became a crutch. Latimore keeps his shirts buttoned to the neck and his eyes alert. He doesn’t talk much, but when someone speaks to him, he hangs on their every word. No wonder dealer Angelo (Dulé Hill) imagines himself to be both the boy’s boss and his substitute father. When Bo has his first date with Holly (Seychelle Gabriel), an unreal dream girl who forces herself into the plot, Angelo slips him some extra cash, and later, offers the kid a gun and a promotion he can’t refuse. (Though he tries.)
But Bo has his own weapon. In his shoulder, he’s implanted an electromagnetic battery to help with his two-bit magic tricks. His body is rejecting it — the festering stitches look like a rotten zinnia. And when working for Angelo goes wrong, really wrong, his surgerized arm turns him into a superhero of sorts, or at least a kinda-sorta hero. He’s not quite Batman, but he’s more powerful than anyone’s expecting. (Don’t ask what he can do to dental fillings.)
Dillard’s not interested in the Zing! Pow! Bam! Sleight is quiet, almost naturalistic, even when Bo is stopping bullets with his bare hand. To Dillard, none of this is cool. Selling cocaine is a drag, and the two tough guys (Michael Villar and Brandon Johnson) who hang around Angelo are total losers. At a house party, one boasts that Kanye is interested in his demo — yeah, right — and the other bleats, “Errybody get naked!” He’s ignored.
What separates Sleight’s hero from other self-made superdudes like those in Kick-Ass is that Bo isn’t trying to be extraordinary. He wants to be normal, and for an orphaned teenager with adult-size responsibilities, just leveling the playing field takes incredible strength. Poverty is a pair of handcuffs and life can trap smart kids in a cage. Millions of children don’t escape. Can Bo? As he tells Holly, “Anyone can learn a trick. But doing something no one else can do makes you a magician.”