Superhero cinema overload is now a year-round condition, as proven by the fact that Logan and The Lego Batman Movie are still making money at the multiplex, Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2, Wonder Woman and Spider-Man: Homecoming are set to rule the summer, and Thor: Ragnarok and Justice League are primed to dominate the fall. Those studio spectacles will no doubt deliver even more rock ‘em, sock’ em CGI mayhem than their predecessors, once again satiating a constant moviegoing hunger for more of the same—only louder, faster, bigger. Which is why perhaps the most unexpectedly satisfying superhero film on the horizon is, conversely, the smallest.
Sleight is the most unassuming comic book-y feature of 2017, an indie that’s indebted to its Marvel and DC compatriots even as it carves out a uniquely compelling—and incisive—place for itself amidst the crowded genre field. Having debuted at last year’s Sundance Film Festival, and arriving in theaters on April 28, this directorial debut from music video vet J.D. Dillard is both an origin story and a self-contained adventure, one that places a premium on character and visual storytelling ahead of any obligations (of which it has none) to make its tale a component of some larger shared-universe saga. The film’s economy is its trump card—well, that and star Jacob Latimore, who, following a forgettable supporting part in last year’s Will Smith-led fiasco Collateral Beauty, announces himself as a leading man-in-the-making with his turn as a street magician whose card tricks are more than just illusions.
Dillard sets his scene in a quick intro pan around the bedroom of Bo (Latimore), depicting childhood knick-knacks and photos before ultimately passing by his engineering scholarship, all as a voicemail message informs us that his mother has just passed away and that he’ll thus have to give up his academic dreams. Cut to the immediate present, and Bo is performing sleight-of-hand feats in public in Los Angeles in order to make a few extra dollars to help care for his little sister Tina (Storm Reid), who’s now in his care. Too young to be a father figure, and yet given no other choice but to accept that role, Bo comes across as the best kind of big brother: supportive, attentive, devoted, and willing to sacrifice his own fortunes for that of his charge. Even, as we soon learn, at great peril.
As it turns out, Bo earns his primary income selling drugs on the street for Angelo (Dulé Hill, in a charmingly sinister performance). It’s a dangerous occupation, although as an encounter with the police proves, it’s one for which he’s tailor-made, since his gift for making things disappear means it’s tough to nab him for possession. More bothersome, at least initially, is that Angelo’s demands on his time keep interrupting his dates with Holly (Seychelle Gabriel), an independent beauty with an abusive mother who gives Bo her phone number after one of his curbside performances, and soon comes to be his potential partner in a new, makeshift surrogate family.
The real question, however, is how Bo pulls off his illusory exploits. Through its first two-thirds, Sleight is shrewd to provide only tantalizing hints about the source of his extraordinary ability, which seems to stem from some bizarre circular mecha-device implanted in his right shoulder (where it’s causing infections). When that revelation does arrive, Dillard’s film reveals itself to be akin to a small-scale urban variation on Iron Man, albeit with Bo also resembling, to varying degrees, both Marvel’s latest Spider-Man, Miles Morales, and famed X-Men villain Magneto. Still, its superhero lineage is merely one part of its DNA, which includes strains of science-fiction, socio-economic commentary, and coming-of-age drama. That it synthesizes these disparate elements so naturally is one of its genuine strengths.
Which isn’t to deny that Sleight is, first and foremost, something like a modest riff on Tony Stark’s tale. As becomes clear [minor spoilers follow], Bo has used his engineering know-how to retrofit himself with an electronic gadget that gives him the power to manipulate metal objects; in effect, his arm is a super-magnet. This transformation is designed to figuratively save him, by letting him transcend his current circumstances as a poor kid trapped in a life of crime, and as a young man unsure of how best to provide for his sister. In other words, he’s turned himself into a superhero in order to become an adult. And his fondness for Houdini, whose poster is spied twice on his wall (with the message “Nothing on Earth can hold Houdini prisoner”), speaks to magic’s metaphorical role in Sleight. It’s Bo’s means of breaking his chains, so to speak, and escaping.
Dillard’s script is impressive not only for the way it hybridizes various genre ancestors, but for its efficiency. Rarely do characters spout exposition about their situations or feelings; instead, the filmmaker conveys much about Bo’s emotions, and the dynamics he shares with others, through canny aesthetic choices. His striking compositions impart information through framing and spatial arrangements, and Ed Wu’s sinewy camerawork and rich color palette do much to create a heightened sense of suspense—as does Charles Scott IV’s brooding electronic score. No matter its low budget, which is also the reason for its thrifty use of special effects, Sleight, progressing with a dreamy rhythm infused with danger, is never less than formally arresting.
“Anyone can learn a trick. But doing something that no one else is willing to do makes you a magician. I can do something no one else can,” says Bo early on, and though the statement resounds with confidence, Latimore’s performance is aces precisely because that sort of cockiness is married to mounting in-over-his-head anxiety, which truly takes hold after Angelo forces him to do something that he most definitely does not want to do. Latimore embodies Bo as an outwardly assured, internally hesitant boy trying to navigate complicated grown-up terrain, at once charismatic and in control and yet crazy scared about what’s in store for him. Such uncertainty doesn’t extend to Sleight itself, however, which concludes on a sharp note that teases greater things to come, but refuses to show us its (hidden-off-screen) final money shot. Like the best illusionists, it knows that mystery is the key to its magic.