Perhaps the greatest trick of "Sleight " is how its two charismatic leads magically make its clunky and overwrought elements almost disappear.
Key to this is 20-year-old Jacob Latimore, who shines in his first starring role. He plays Bo, a science whiz who performs street magic around Los Angeles. When his mom unexpectedly dies, Bo skips out on the college scholarship he earned to stay home and look after his little sister. The street-magic hustle doesn't bring in enough money, so he sells drugs on the side.
Dule Hill, deliciously playing against type, is Angelo, the local drug kingpin who brings Bo into his fold. Angelo is a classic sociopath: charming, icy and exacting. He metes out justice with bullets and a cleaver.
Bo doesn't like the drug work, but because he only sells cocaine and party pills to club kids in Hollywood, he justifies to himself that it's harmless. His challenge is to juggle his magic dreams and drug-slinging reality while protecting his sister, and Latimore embodies the tenderness, fear and determination such a balancing act requires.
Meanwhile, Bo is devoted to improving his magic skills, which are secretly aided by an electromagnet he's built into his arm.
You read that right: Bo is like a self-made Iron Man, with an electro-charged arm that can move metal objects without touching them.
"Anyone can learn a trick," Bo says. "But doing something no one else is willing to do makes you a magician."
This is how he explains a fierce-looking wound on his arm to his impossibly idealized girlfriend, Holly (Seychelle Gabriel). Holly is the kind of fictionalized female construct that can only exist in the male imagination: She's smitten at first glance, ripe for rescuing and willing to give her hard-earned life savings to a cute magician she just met.
She and the other female characters, including Sasheer Zamata as Bo's caring neighbor, Carmen Esposito as a seen-it-all club manager and Storm Reid as Bo's beloved little sister, aren't developed beyond their relationship to Bo.
"Sleight" is Bo's story, which is why Latimore's casting is crucial. His performance is so compelling that it smooths over the shortcomings in the script, direction and budget. And Hill is a hoot as a man completely off the hinges, even if he almost veers into caricature.
Though the film suffers from pacing issues that make it feel longer than its 90-minute running time, and the drug-dealing subplot is heavy-handed and stereotypical, it's a promising start for first-time director J.D. Dillard, who co-wrote the screenplay with producer Alex Theurer. Dillard is equally unafraid of gore and emotion, and the use of magic here feels fresh.
"Sleight" succeeds with its creation of a modern quasi-superhero in Bo and the launching of an electric new leading man in Latimore.
"Sleight," a BH Tilt release, is rated R by the Motion Picture Association of America for "language throughout, drug content and some violence." Running time: 90 minutes. Two and a half stars out of four.
MPAA definition for R: Restricted. Under 17 requires accompanying parent or adult guardian.
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