Directed by: J.D. Dillard
Starring: Jacob Latimore, Seychelle Gabriel, Dulé Hill
Rated: R for language throughout, drug content and some violence
Runtime: 1 hr. 29 min.

I’m always on the lookout for small movies, maybe rough around the edges, that show some talent and thoughtfulness. For example, Darren Aronofsky’s Pi (1998) or Shane Carruth’s strange brain teaser Primer (2004) or Rian Johnson’s time-travel thriller Looper (2012).

So, what to make of Sleight? It’s about magic and science. The main character is a drug dealer, but also an orphaned brother trying to take care of his sister.

And how about Sleight’s director, J.D. Dillard? Once a receptionist for J.J. Abrams’ production company Bad Robot, and later his personal assistant, Dillard is now making his directorial debut. Talk about a magic trick.

Set in the sprawling streets of Los Angeles, Bo (Jacob Latimore) and Tina (Storm Reid) have recently lost their parents. To make ends meet, Bo does street magic during the day for tips and runs drugs at night for his local dealer, Angelo (Dulé Hill). In between gigs, he cooks for his sister and makes sure she gets to school on time. For Bo, this is his average day.

One day, while performing magic tricks, Bo meets Holly (Seychelle Gabriel), whom he delights by spinning her ring in the air. Premonition? Maybe. Slowly, awkwardly, they fall in love.

Bo naively thinks he’s working the drug angle until he can save enough money to move out of Los Angeles. But his smooth-talking dealer, Angelo, persistently pulls Bo into a darker circle of violence. Angelo is friendly. Bo doesn’t realize he’s also dangerous. When Angelo forces Bo to commit a horrendous act, he decides to cut some of Angelo’s drugs to make more money and speed up his escape. It’s a terrible mistake for which he pays a steep price. Angelo kidnaps his sister.

Knee-deep in alligators, Bo must use his talents to get to Angelo and save his sister. As it turns out, that talent isn’t just the average card trick. He’s got stronger stuff in mind and calls up an old professor for advice. The question is, will it work? Can he pull it off without destroying himself?

By Dillard’s own admission, this was one of his previous short films that was rushed into full-length production. It feels that way. Its script could use some lengthening and polishing. Its characters aren’t quite filled out. There are some holes in the plot that might have been solved with a little more editing and length.

And yet, Latimore’s Bo, the desperate brother trying to take care of his small family, seems to fill up the screen with his charisma as a street magician and his angst over his personal mistakes. While Bo’s magic has made him the victim of his own illusions, he’s intelligent enough to dig into his past for solutions. One good trick deserves an even bigger trick.

There’s a physics and science angle to this film that you don’t fully appreciate until you reach the final chapter. It’s as if the director is hustling you with his own deck of cards, turning your head in one direction while deftly setting you up. In fact, Sleight is really a sci-fi film posing as a drama. The trick is in the ending. What you see. What you can’t see. It’s there just waiting for the right aha moment.

Sleight falls a bit short in its promise, but has enough heart, illusion and downright weirdness to keep you fascinated by its premise. Yes, it has rough edges, but also a tenderness that seems to survive the violence. It’s simple and complicated, with the pull and push of love and family.

Dillard captures both the bright sunshine and deep darkness of L.A. and keeps the story moving, trick by trick, until the real magic, which has been forming right in front of your eyes, pulls off its own sleight of hand, then says in a whisper as the credits roll: Gotcha.