Keep your eyes on the magician’s hands. She’ll attempt to distract you with compliments and silly quips, but her most effective feint will be the story she tells as she shuffles the cards. She might give quaint mention to a lover’s spat between the King of Hearts and the Queen of Hearts. Or she’ll spin a detailed yarn about the conjoined silver rings that she’s brandishing, insisting that they were fastened together by a wise old man. The more outlandish the tale, the better: The words busy the brain until the magician hits you with the big reveal — you’re sitting on the Queen of Hearts!
At least that’s one way it could go. In J.D. Dillard’s coming-of-age (and coming-of-magic) tale, Sleight — about a young street magician who turns to dealing drugs to care for his little sis — the director builds to one big, beautiful revelation. But the story he tells in the lead-up doesn’t distract so much as it politely asks you to stand up so that it can place the trick card under your ass.
Jacob Latimore is Bo Wolfe, a smart kid in Los Angeles who turned down a college scholarship to hustle party drugs at clubs. Mom has just died, so Bo has to make fast cash to cover rent for him and his sister, Tina (Storm Reid). During the day, Bo does card and levitation tricks for a few dollars tossed in a canvas tote, which is how he meets Holly (Seychelle Gabriel), a bakery waitress who glows when Bo floats her golden ring in front of her face. He literally has a trick up his sleeve: an electromagnetic device he has implanted in his shoulder.
Dillard presents this body mutilation as something like a seeping, infected eye, with copper wire neatly sewn around the hole as an embroidered sun. Like a real-life comic-book hero, Bo derives his power this way, and Dillard has great fun with these elements of the fantastic. The director shoots the street-magic scenes in bright light and gives us intentionally hilarious mind-freaked crowd-reaction shots in slow motion. There’s real joy in these moments, and you pine for more of them as the film wears on and Dillard baits-and-switches us, focusing more and more on the monotonous good-kid-gets-in-too-deep-with-bad-guys story.
Dulé Hill plays seemingly sophisticated drug pusher Angelo, Bo’s boss. Angelo’s like a dad to the orphaned Bo. He even gives the kid money for a date, but the cash comes with the stipulation of “favors” done in return. As one-note as these gangsters-doing-drug-deals scenes are — lots of lead pipes and guns and people huffing and puffing about their “territory” — Dillard does break up the rote tough-guy play by smartly cutting to Bo’s quivering hands. A master magician relies upon those appendages, but the gun cripples Bo like Kryptonite, building a little tension as we wonder whether he’ll use those hands to get out of the jam.
But we know from the get-go that Bo will take a risk, get too involved with the violent side of the drug business and have to find a way to extract himself from the situation — this is a story we’ve seen before. What we haven’t seen is the untold story leading up to this plot, one that shows us how a teenage science whiz gets so obsessed with magic that he burrows copper wires into his own goddamned arm.
Instead of showing us this, Dillard merely announces the backstory in a lengthy monologue delivered by Bo: As a kid, he became enamored with a street magician who put a knife through his hand without bleeding or creating a wound. Years later, Bo reconnected with the man and learned the secret: He had stabbed his palm so many times that he had built up so much scar tissue that would accept a real blade. Just for a trick, the man really did send the knife through his hand again and again. That’s a great story, but I don’t want to hear about it; I want to see it. Likewise, we’re never shown just how Bo got himself into his dilemma with Angelo.
Bo’s hardship is established by a single shot of what seems to be an unopened bill from a hospital. Later, he says that he wishes he could move Tina out of their house and into a better school district. But we don’t see Bo struggling. How indebted is he? Was dealing drugs his first choice for a job? Did his trickster personality not jibe with other employers? (And, drug-dealing jobs go, this one seems pretty cush; all he does is pull up in his car and exchange money for molly. The one time cops hassle him, he doesn’t seem fazed as he uses sleight of hand and leaves the cops befuddled.) We know he wants to be a magician, but he doesn’t seem to have any ambition to take his act off the street. Where are the stakes for Bo?
The filmmakers and the studio seem aware that the story is missing its impetus. After the screening, I was handed a promotional Sleight comic by Ryan Parrot, illustrated by Rob Guillory. Inside, all of Bo’s backstory is laid out with beauty and feeling, starting right from that magician with the knife in his palm and showing Bo getting fired from a valet company and then taking his first job for Angelo. The biggest sleight was watching this entire movie, only to find that what I wanted was in a comic book.