To find something as simple as Gimme The Loot in amongst the grand-standing, self-consciously important films at Cannes is a rare thing this year, but that isn’t to say that the slightness of Adam Leon’s debut feature should in any way be construed as a criticism. His day in the life, gentle teenage caper flick is heartfelt and hugely charming, and the fact that it was made with a near zero budget, and has already walked away with the Narrative Grand Jury Prize at SXSW back in March is a major achievement.
Inspired by a local-access cable TV show’s suggestion of the NY Mets homerun apple as a worthy target for any graffiti artists (or “bombers” in the language of the film) looking to make a name for themselves, two Bronx teenagers – Malcolm or “Shakes” (Ty Hickson) and Sofia (Tashiana Washington) set about achieving the feat that has defied everyone for the past twenty years. Malcolm knows a man inside at Citi Fields who can get them access before the Mets return from an away game, but the only issue is the $500 finders fee and the fact that both the teens’ pockets are empty.
Gimme The Loot is their odyssey – a two day narrative journey through the pair’s attempts to grift the money together, calling in loans and favours, selling their stock of stolen spray cans, and even stealing weed from local dealer Donnie to steal on to his clients, including rich girl Ginnie (Zoe Lescaze). When Sofia’s scheme to make her share of the money goes up in smoke thanks to rival local graffiti gang the WKC, and a blossoming romance between Ginnie and Shakes turns sour, the pair decide to rob Ginnie’s apartment with the help of small time criminal friend Champion (Meeko Gattuso) to make their money.
It’s hardly a spectacular plot, but the small-time caper takes a backseat as a vehicle for character portraits and an astute fascination with how they interact with one another. Sofia and Shakes enjoy a volatile relationship, with the hint of something deeper in the undercurrent, and both Hickson and Washington offer strong, but even more importantly authentic performances to give their dynamic an extra kick. They bounce off each other and other characters well, with interesting support work from Gattuso, who looks ready-made to play a henchman in every upcoming urban crime film for the next ten years.
The only weakness in the cast is Zoe Lescaze, a new-comer who plays alouf Ginnie, and struggling to impart her character with the easy authenticity that other members of the cast manage for theirs, unfortunately even failing to jog convincingly. She isn’t terrible, and her early scenes opposite Hickson are the best part of her involvement, but when the script demands something a little less comfortable from her character Lescaze stutters, and in the company of such otherwise authentic characterisations she sticks out.
As a mark of its success, it’s hard to resist drawing comparisons between Gimme The Loot and Larry Clark’s excellent, controversial Kids, which stands as the darker, amoral older sibling to Leon’s work, over-lapping in the presentation of certain American teenage sub-cultures. Both films offer a specifically youthful portrait of New York through the eyes of its adolescents – though Gimme The Loots’ characters feel a little more authentic than Kids, who had a tendency to wear their politicized messages a little too close to the surface.
Of course Gimme The Loot is a far gentler experience, offering a faintly amusing, very charming caper feel, rather than explicit social of moral commentary, and thankfully, unlike Cosmopolis which screened immediately before it, the film demands very little but attention from the audience. You also get the feeling you’d be infinitely happier to spend some time in the company of these characters than either Kids’ stable of caricatures, or indeed many of the characters on show at this year’s festival.
To his credit Leon chooses to shoot his characters without ostentation or unnecessary aesthetic flourishes – inspired as the director himself confirms by by Morris Engel, Ruth Orkin and Ray Ashley’s Little Fugitive. Instead he allows the actors’ performances to carry the story, occasionally embellishing and furthering the agenda of authenticity with establishing shots of New York, but never shifting focus too far away from the central pair’s small-time dreams of making their name.
It only drops points for a lack of polish, but considering the budget and the choice to use untrained, brand new actors for the most part, Adam Leon should be commended for managing to create something with such an obvious individual voice, helped in part by an engaging, eclectic score from Nicholas Britell. It’s a simple film, but an artfully executed one, and it succeeds precisely because it demands very little from the audience. If only the same could be said of some of this year’s other festival inclusions.
The upside: The chemistry between Ty Hickson and Tashiana Washington drives the film, thanks to strong performances from both of the non-professionals.
The downside: Those who prefer a bit of beef to their narratives should look elsewhere.