By day, Bo (Jacob Latimore) is a street magician, wowing passersby with truly impressive sleight of hand for tips. By night, he slings party drugs in the clubs and on the streets of L.A. But all the time, he's the protective guardian of his sister, Tina (Storm Reid), just two orphaned siblings against the world.
In "Sleight," director J.D. Dillard and producer Alex Theurer, who co-wrote the script, have created an unlikely superhero origin story, executed with the style, themes and budget of independent cinema.
The central conflict of "Sleight" revolves around Bo's competing livelihoods. Magic is his passion, a calling so strong that he subjects himself to physical extremes. Inspired as a kid by a Venice Beach illusionist who carved a hole in his hand for an effect, Bo believes that anyone can do a trick, but the person who'll do anything is the true magician. A Houdini poster illustrates his inspiration to push himself to the limit for his craft.
But selling drugs pays the bills, a side hustle that has sucked Bo in far deeper than he ever imagined. His boss, Angelo (Dulé Hill), has started to rely on him in ways that test Bo's morality and identity, and going against the boss is far more dangerous than even Bo wagers. Also, Bo has recently met-cute with community college student/cupcake salesgirl Holly (Seychelle Gabriel), and he doesn't imagine she wants to date the local drug dealer.
The magic is the setting and the soul of "Sleight," while the drugs offer stakes and danger. At times, the drug subplot feels overwrought and inauthentic; as committed as Hill is, it's hard to buy him as the ruthless and cold-blooded Angelo, and the budget limitations are clearer during those scenes.
But Dillard and Theurer pull off the most important trick in the film — the character and his journey. Latimore shines in this lead role, and "Sleight" is a star-making performance for this on-the-rise actor. The high stakes of his entanglement with Angelo force Bo out of his comfort zone, and he relies on his magic skills to escape some sticky situations.
The film leaves the supernatural elements just ambiguous enough, only hinting around the edges at the possibilities of what could be. It's a smart move for a film that's grounded in a gritty reality about a kid struggling to make ends meet in a tough world. But the wisps of real magic that dance around the edges of "Sleight" imbue the film with a fresh, exciting dynamic.
In their feature film debut, Dillard and Theurer efficiently utilize their resources to demonstrate a deft control of character and tone that leaves you curious about what the filmmakers could do with a bigger project. "Sleight" fuses superhero story with a tough coming-of-age tale and enlivens and elevates both genres into something new and different, while heralding the arrival of Latimore as a star.
Katie Walsh is a Tribune News Service film critic.
Rating: R for language throughout, drug content and some violence.
Running time: 1 hour, 30 minutes
Playing: In general release