‘Deidra & Laney Rob a Train’ Is Dual Genre Delight
The high school heist earns the pun “Ocean’s For Teen.”
Contrary to the title, Deidra and Laney rob many trains. They become prolific thieves, mastering and streamlining their illegal profession into the delicate series of events we usually see in heist movies. All while the sisters attend high school. Yes, Deidra & Laney Rob a Train is both a caper film and a high school comedy and for every moment it stumbles at one, it excels at the other.
Put into a desperate living situation after their mother’s (Danielle Nicolet) nervous breakdown-induced incarceration (she liberates a TV from her blue-poloed electronics store job, then this mortal coil), elder sister Deidra (Ashleigh Murray) must care for her younger sister Laney (Rachel Crow) and kid brother Jet (Lance Gray) against forces such as mortgage payments and snooping CPS agents. I like movies that understand how a small part of the world works and use that knowledge to inform how their worlds unfold. Deidra & Laney understands a few parts very well: commercial trains, high school drama, and the suburban working class.
On top of finding money to pay for bail, bills, and food for the family, Deidra’s a senior. Valedictorian, too. That means college is – unexpectedly for her school – an option. We learn this via an animated performance by Sasheer Zamata as the world’s coolest guidance counselor, a job that movies already romanticize like English teacher or lawyer. She’s here to get Deidra into the Ivy League so they can both move on to bigger and better things, but pressure mounts as the problems pile up and the solutions dwindle.
Sydney Freeland’s direction keeps the film inventive, snappy, and bubbly – the perfect combination to bridge the gap between unpopular Laney’s surprise nomination for Miss Teen Idaho and the decision to start stealing from boxcars. This final solution comes not just from the meandering track behind the family’s house, but a meandering ex-member of the family. Their father Chet (David Sullivan), deftly defined as a complex combination of charming and toxic, is a yard mechanic whose trainjacking knowledge offsets his deadbeat finances. He mentions the crime in passing, but by now we know that Deidra is an ambitious girl.
Then the fun really starts. A beautiful montage of planning, explanation, and execution empowers the sisters with all the moxie of Hollywood’s vaultbusters and an easy-breezy familial bond forged by hateful words and loving gestures. The script may include a few too many pet names (“glitter bunny”?) that underestimate how believable their relationship already is to its audience, but the pace is quick and the conversations always feel real. First time screenwriter Shelby Farrell captures the dichotomy of petty immaturity and graduate-and-you’re-not-my-problem responsibility thrust upon high schoolers on the cusp of the real world. She also shows how far past that cusp some students – minority students, impoverished students, disabled students, anyone that may not have the same privileges as the rest – are pushed.
And yes, the family members (aside from Chet) are people of color. It’s not an accident. The film allows them to be simultaneously hard workers undone by the system and badasses finding empowerment where they shouldn’t (either by robbing trains or finding the small pleasures in prison), weaving complexity where kitsch or indie insufferability could overwhelm. The family is real, even if the train is just the way we understand them. They’re the 63% of Americans who’re one emergency away from being on the street. The crime is the dreaded hypothetical, discussed over microwaved dinner, proving both desperation and ability.
All this subtlety would be for naught without the leads. Ashleigh Murray wows whether in science class or busting a lock with a hoe. She crackles and sparks as she seeks personal success, preens and flexes when she achieves it – all standing completely still. She and Rachel Crow share the quick jabber and lived-in facial expressions that fade the idea that they’re actors far into the background. When they’re in front of us, all we’re wondering is what they’ll do after throwing a boxload of jeans off a moving train, forever changing the meaning of The Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants.
The script can get a bit too cutesy at times (all the basic white girls at school obsess over Taylor Swift) and Jet’s character exists as cliched plot motivation more than anything (always need a child being threatened by authority), but the film’s a delightfully vulgar blast. The teens talk like teens. It’s surprisingly refreshing to hear “Aw, shit” from a young person outside a Judd Apatow film. Tim Blake Nelson’s over-zealous train cop is the one tonal misstep in the whole precariously pitched movie, somehow not threatening enough while being an attempt at the wrong kind of humor. The rest of the film is so sharp that his character’s bumbling makes it feel a lot more low-rent than it deserves. Heroes of this caliber, even if they’re teen criminals that use their money to stunt on their bitchy ex-friends, deserve a villain to match.
I’m not wont to recommend the creation of more films in a genre mashup so rife with pretentious pratfalls as teen/heist, but if they’re all about sisters finding personal empowerment through a bit of Robin Hoodery (and they’re all directed by Freeland), I’m game for much more.