Thursday, April 4, 2013

Petty Larceny: Gimme the Loot

Tashiana Washington and Ty Hickson stars in Gimme the Loot

Gimme the Loot, an engaging 81-minute first feature from Adam Leon, is about a couple of black teenagers from the Bronx, Sofia (Tashiana Washington) and Malcolm (Ty Hickson), and how they spend the hot summer days drifting around the city on adventures that look aimless but, from minute to minute, always seem like matters of vital importance to them. They’re adolescents, with no perspective or capacity for long-range planning, but with passionate feelings that they can neither control nor modulate. In the case of the feelings they may be developing for each other beneath the playful but spiky surface of their platonic partnership, they can’t even articulate them, even though she’s smoldering and direct and he’s a happy motor-mouth.

The only way Sofia can express her mixed feelings about the changes they’re going through is to say that Ginnie (Zoe Lescaze), a blonde Manhattanite that Malcolm has met through his sometime job as a marijuana courier, is “pretty,” as a way of goading Malcolm into agreeing with her, so that she can then take umbrage at the suggestion that she and Ginnie aren’t in the same league. Malcolm, who only half-understands what’s going on, tries to keep things on a kidding-around level. Sophie gets upset, then regains enough footing to cut him some slack, telling him that she knows what it’s like when you try to cheer someone up in a way that only makes them feel worse. Malcolm somehow takes this as his cue to start talking about wet dreams.

Sophia and Malcolm’s official excuse for hanging out together is that they’re a team of graffiti artists, and their mission of the moment is to pull off the impossible dream of “bombing” the Mets' home-run apple at what Sophia, expressing her disgust for “the banks” and what they represent, refuses to call Citi Field. (If the Mets play there, then it’s Shea Stadium.) Sophia and Malcolm, who are first seen running out of a store with armfuls of spray-paint canisters tucked under their T-shirts, have decided that they need $500 to finance this great endeavor. This is why Malcolm, having been dismissed from his job by the dealer, tricks another delivery man into giving him his supply, and then, having been invited into her bedroom by Ginnie, his customer, impulsively hatches a plan to rob her. There’s no malice in this, at least not at first; he likes Ginnie, and seems to think that, since her family seems to have it pretty good, she can afford to lose a few things and probably won’t even miss them.

Zoe Lescaze and Ty Hickson in Gimme the Loot
The centerpiece of the movie is Malcolm’s long first meeting with Ginnie, who Zoe Lescaze – who recalls the teenage Cynthia Nixon of Marshall Brickman’s The Manhattan Project – plays as a prodigiously disorienting young pothead flirt. She and Malcolm have an instant mutual attraction that he has no idea what to do with, but so long as it’s just the two of them, they can take their time and feel each other out. Leon’s camera just sits on them, observing their mating ritual, and though Leon isn’t yet the most electrifying of visual stylists, he does have a terrific ear. (When Malcolm refers to the dealer’s girlfriend as a “hippie,” Ginnie corrects him: “You can’t be a hippie. It’s some olden times thing. It’s like saying she’s a Victorian courtesan or a Mayan princess or something.” A few seconds later, she’s snarking that the dealer has a fetish for “vagabonds.”) After they’ve briefly made out, talking about how easily he could rob her is Malcolm’s way of boasting. But his mood, and his motivation for taking something from her, change after he returns to her apartment and finds her surrounded by stoned girlfriends. Suddenly he’s just “the drug dealer,” and Ginny’s teasing has an uninviting, mean-girl edge to it.

Early on, Gimme the Loot sets up the action with a 20-year-old clip from a public access TV show, in which some guys laugh about their own failed attempt to tag the home-run apple. Soon after that, Malcolm is blithely leaping over a subway stile, and opening the door to let Sofia in, in a way that’s like a flashback to the pre-“Broken Windows” era of New York street culture, but without any menace or threat. And there’s never any sense that Malcolm is about to get busted while trucking around the rich precincts of Manhattan with joints in his backpack, or that his angry boss is going to catch up with him and exact retribution. Even when a rival gang of taggers rough Sofia up, the mauling doesn’t have any feel of physical danger to it – though it’s hard to say whether this is entirely restraint on the director’s part, or if there might be some incompetence mixed in.

In its own way, the movie has a nostalgic feel to it: it harkens back to a time, both in the history of the city and at a youthful point in life, when it seemed easier to skate on the edge of the law without getting in serious trouble or graduating to more dangerous transgressions. (The guy whose marijuana Malcolm commandeers wonders aloud about what the city is coming to: “Back in the ‘90s, you would have never seen a guy wearing flip-flops. Now, if a lady wants to show her pretty toes, that’s fine. I don’t recommend it.”) Gimme the Loot is a modest picture in every way, but much of its special charm comes from the way it sets up situations in which it’s easy to imagine the worst, and then skirts those kind of melodramatic outcomes, without turning into a Disney picture. Leon isn’t out to destroy his characters. But he can’t always keep them from being hurt.

Phil Dyess-Nugent is a freelance writer living in Texas. He regularly writes about TV and books for The A. V. Club.

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