I see so many independent movies that sometimes, when an indie movie comes along that really is independent – that is to say, when it offers up a fresh new way of seeing – I blink twice.
Writer-director Adam Leon’s feature debut, “Gimme the Loot,” which takes place in the Bronx over two hot summer days, is just such a film. It had good buzz at Cannes last year, and it’s been making the festival circuit to rightful acclaim. From the sound of it, it might be mistaken for yet another micro-budget gabfest about self-absorbed teenagers.
Sofia (Tashiana Washington) and Malcolm (Ty Hickson) are bickering buddies and fellow graffiti guerrillas. They want to one-up a rival gang of taggers by decorating (or defacing, depending on your point of view) the giant Home Run Apple that pops up at the New York Mets’ Citi Field whenever the home team knocks one out. To do this, they need to scrounge $500 to bribe their way inside the stadium (hence the film’s title).
It soon becomes clear that their quest for cash, which takes the form of cadging money at illicit bodegas and selling marijuana, is getting them nowhere fast. It’s also clear that, for Leon, it’s the quest and not the payoff that matters. Sofia and Malcolm are avid but hopelessly inept con artists.
The movie is not about scoring and tagging; it’s about the romantic connection between Sofia and Malcolm. It’s a character movie, not a caper movie. The duo’s connection is romantic without being carnal. Although it’s obvious that Malcolm is enamored of Sofia, he can’t quite let on to her (or himself) about it. The attraction on his part is obvious: Sofia is pretty and sharp and sassy. He, on the other hand, is so gangly and cooled-out that their collusion seems almost contrapuntal. She’s staccato; he’s legato.
Washington (she’s a model, singer, and dancer) moves gracefully and speaks with a quicksilver cunning. Her agitated befuddlement with Malcolm and his haywire schemes is inherently funny. She can’t quite believe what she’s hearing sometimes. And no wonder. Malcolm is a weird conflation of savvy and dopey.
Alas, it’s the dopiness that most often comes into play. The most comic scene in the movie comes when he and the overmuscled, tattooed crook Champion (Meeko) attempt to break into the apartment of Ginnie (Zoë Lescaze), a rich girl to whom Malcolm sold some pot. The two guys can’t figure out whether her third-floor apartment is two floors up from ground level or three. (Depends how you count it.) Meantime Ginnie is off jogging, with Sofia tailing her. What seems like an easy subterfuge becomes a grueling marathon, as Ginnie unexpectedly wears Sofia out with her stamina.
The most touching scene is when Malcolm, who had been smoochy with Ginnie earlier, is condescended to by her when he subsequently shows up at her place in the presence of her other white girlfriends. Would she have reacted this way if the African-American Malcolm had been moneyed? “Gimme the Loot” is as much about class as it is about friendship, or even race for that matter.
Leon has a marvelous and rare eye for blending staged dramatic sequences into documentary settings, from barrio bodegas to high-rise penthouses. He often films in extended, unbroken takes, and this gives the actors a chance to work up their own distinctive rhythms. (Hickson’s acting, which seems amateurish at first, really grows on you.) He also forgoes for the most part hand-held cameras, that bane of indie movies.
The verisimilitude he conjures up is the artifice that conceals artifice. I especially like the fact that “Gimme the Loot,” given its subject, doesn’t detour into the expected byways of drug overdoses and shootouts. I was gratified when I read what Leon had to say in an interview about this: “I hadn’t really seen too many stories about these types of kids when they’re not, you know, raped by their family or something atrocious.
“And so we said we wanted to be true to who these characters were and authentic, but make the story more about the joys of youth than the perils of it.” Exactly. Grade: A- (Unrated.)