"Gimme the Loot" shouldn't be as appealing and exuberant as it is, it really shouldn't.
It's set in the Bronx, the grittiest of New York City boroughs. Its larcenous teenage protagonists are introduced stealing spray paint from a hardware store; the world they live in is rife with drug dealing, robbery and all manner of hustles and petty scams.
This could be the set-up for a sequel to "The Wire," but in writer-director Adam Leon's hands it is anything but.
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In a feature debut that succeeded at Cannes after taking the best narrative prize at last year's SXSW festival, Leon, who himself won Film Independent's Someone to Watch award, has made a small-scale, warm-hearted film that is both upbeat and intimate.
Only 81 minutes long and shot on the fly in a variety of New York locations, "Gimme the Loot's" off-the-cuff bravado perfectly captures the texture of youthful high energy, of two kids trying their hardest to put on their own kind of show.
Malcolm (Ty Hickson) and Sofia (Tashiana Washington) are not exactly a latter-day Mickey Rooney and Judy Garland. They are totally committed graffiti writers, as dedicated to the artistry of their craft as any creators of stained glass at a medieval cathedral.
Close pals but not romantically involved, Malcolm and Sofia are a study in opposites. He's easygoing and affable while she is unapologetically fierce, someone who punctures Malcolm's balloons in a way he seems to enjoy. Their back-and-forth is delightful in part because the language used is completely and unapologetically profane.
One of Leon's gifts is for people, for getting natural, likable performances out of his actors. Though a native New Yorker, Leon does not come from this particular world, but he spent considerable time studying it and making it feel and sound authentic.
"I'd go on the subway and eavesdrop on conversations," he told Filmmaker magazine. "I'd work with the actors on the language, on what felt real and authentic. And by the time we were ready to shoot, our shooting script was pretty much what you see in the movie."
"Loot's" plot gets going when a rival group of taggers defaces one of the pair's rooftop masterpieces. Malcolm and Sofia grouse about not getting any respect and wonder, like young people everywhere, what they can do to make the world sit up and take notice.
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Then inspiration strikes. Malcolm remembers talk years back of how epochal it would be if someone somehow wrote graffiti on the enormous mechanical apple that rises from a magician's hat at what the kids still call Shea Stadium whenever a New York Met hits a home run.
Determined to "bomb the Apple" and "get mad props" for himself and Sofia, Malcolm remembers that he knows someone who works security at the stadium. A few phone calls later and the scenario emerges: Malcolm and Sofia have a weekend to come up with $500 to gain access to the stadium and immortality.
Having to complete a task while the clock is ticking is one of the most venerable of Hollywood tropes, but Leon and his team know just how to put new twists on old themes. As a knockout soundtrack featuring not rap but R&B and gospel groups with names such as Big Dan and the Gospel Heavyweights and the New Soul Revivers of Aiken, SC play in the background, the two split up to double their chances of raising the cash.
Malcolm, who usually earns money as a runner for drug dealers, picks the wrong time to get in bad with his bosses. He ends up taking desperate measures that put him in the apartment of attractive and entitled college student Ginnie (Zoë Lescaze), whose presence causes his thoughts to pinball from the romantic to the larcenous and back again. At one point during the day, he even loses his shoes.
Sophia has adventures of her own, and though she considers herself supremely street-smart, things do not always work out the way she intended either. For all her bravado, Sophia too is often in over her head.
Filmmaker Leon has deftly structured "Gimme the Loot" as a picaresque tale, an anecdotal, observational film that introduces us to all manner of eccentric and original characters. Will Malcolm and Sophia get what they want, what they need, or something in between? The only sure thing is that being along for the ride is pleasure of the most unexpected sort.
'Gimme the Loot'
MPAA rating: Not rated
Running time: 1 hour, 21 minutes
Playing: At Nuart, West Los Angeles
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