‘Sleight’ Review | How to Get Away With Magic

J.D. Dillard's illusionist crime drama is suspenseful and richly acted, but it lacks one vital quality: showpersonship.

William Bibbianiby William Bibbiani

A crime thriller, a romance, a character study, a superhero story… it’s hard to pin down what, exactly, J.D. Dillard’s Sleight really is. That doesn’t stop this genre mash-up from working a little bit of magic, but only a little.

Jacob Latimore stars as Bo, a street magician who deals drugs on the side, who runs afoul of his unstable boss, Angelo (Dulé Hill), and has to raise an obscene amount of money or pay the price with his own life, or his little sister’s. If it weren’t for just one other, outrageous conceit this would be the sum total of the movie’s plot. Sleight combines all its genre elements to tell a brisk and simple story, grounded by strong performances and rich suspense.

But here’s the thing: Bo is no ordinary magician. He doesn’t use it often, but he has the power to do magic tricks nobody else can do. He can reach out and manipulate objects several feet away, without any prep time. He can levitate coins without any of the usual gimmicks. There’s something special about Bo that goes beyond his amiable charms, his love for his family, and his talent for sleight of hand. He seems capable of performing feats of actual, honest to goodness magic.

BH Tilt

BH Tilt

So it’s pretty hard to imagine why, in telling a story about an illusionist with a secret, J.D. Dillard decides to give away that secret in the first few minutes of the film. It’s the equivalent of a magician showing you how they’re going to saw a person in half, and then sawing that person in half. You can be impressed by their ingenuity all you like, but it’s hardly showpersonship.

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Stranger still, Bo explains why he went into magic in the first place with a story about the power of mystique. He marveled, as a child, at a magician who stabbed himself in the hand without blood or injury. Bo was so enraptured by the mystery of how that was accomplished that he dedicated his life to magical pursuits of his own.

BH Tilt

BH Tilt

How odd, then, that the audience is denied that same sense of wonder. We are instead merely told how he’s doing all those incredible tricks. Sleight pulls the curtain back on an impressive performer and illuminates the many sacrifices he’s willing to make for his art. What we see is what we get, which is pretty ironic for a film about illusions, and it’s hard to shake the sense that we’re missing out on the “trick” part of Bo’s magic tricks.

Sleight makes some unusual choices, and maybe not entirely wise ones, but it makes them confidently. J.D. Dillard’s film works on its own merits, and ultimately emerges as an entertaining, moving story of a young man who gets in serious trouble, and who uses his unique individual talents to get out again. But magicians and movies need skill and flourish to enrapture their audience. Sleight gets by with only one of those ingredients. It could have been a showstopper with both.

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Top Photo: BH Tilt

William Bibbiani (everyone calls him ‘Bibbs’) is Crave’s film content editor and critic. You can hear him every week on The B-Movies Podcast and Canceled Too Soon, and watch him on the weekly YouTube series What the Flick. Follow his rantings on Twitter at @WilliamBibbiani.