Everyone knows that for much of fictional cinema, suspension of disbelief is an essential factor in your overall enjoyment of a film. You should be so invested in the story that even the most implausible situations are accepted without much second thought. This concept is especially true of films like J.D. Dillard’s “Sleight“, which tests the boundaries of science and human behavior. Unfortunately, this is one instance where despite its compelling magical mysteries, the film falters in the fundamental requirement of presenting a believable, empathetic central character.
“Sleight” stars Jacob Latimore in that lead role of Bo, a brilliant mind trapped in unfortunate circumstances. Blessed with extraordinary intelligence, he is on track for a promising career in engineering. But when his mother passes unexpectedly, he is left to become the man of the house and take care of his precocious little sister. Forgoing a college scholarship, he turns to the streets, where he performs incredible magic tricks and deals drugs under the watch of a mercurial boss. Putting his engineering background to good use, he uses a highly scientific method to conduct his tricks that border on mysticism. But what starts out as an innocent experiment becomes a necessary weapon when his relationship with the drug boss turns dangerously sour.
On the surface, “Sleight” resembles an indie superhero film in the vein of Josh Trank’s “Chronicle”. But Dillard complicates matters, mixing in elements of urban crime drama that can’t help but feel disappointing. Despite an introductory panning shot that emphasizes our character’s exceptional academic achievements and promise, our protagonist falls into many of the same pitfalls of the stereotypical urban teen. And though there is some harsh truth to this societal reality, it feels disingenuous based on what we learn of this character.
Indeed, Bo is far from your average teenager, capable of enduring immense pain for the sake of his challenging his own intellect. When the secret behind his mind-boggling magic is revealed, its extremity and complexity is both shocking and impressive. As such, the viewer is left wondering how such a resourceful young man – more Doctor Strange than Tre Styles – ends up making such disappointing life choices.
As if anticipating these concerns, the script makes the supportive loved ones into audience surrogates, with girlfriend and best friend alike asking variations of the question “Why are you doing this?” Unfortunately, Bo’s responses never quite justify his struggle. The bland, generic dialogue offers no further insight into his mentality.
Underneath the film’s unconvincing portrait of urban woe however, is a well-paced superhero narrative that keeps you engaged. Though predictable, the plot also benefits from likable damsels in distress and a genuinely frightening villain. And Latimore makes the most of his dubious lead role too, fully committing to the character’s misguided choices. But sadly, it’s not until the final scenes that he, the character and the film itself start to maximize their potential.
“Sleight” opens in theaters April 28.