Key to this is 20-year-old Jacob Latimore, who shines in his first starring role. He plays Bo, a science whiz who performs street magic in Los Angeles.
When his mom unexpectedly dies, Bo skips out on the college scholarship he earned to look after his younger sister. The street-magic hustle doesn’t bring in enough money, so he sells drugs on the side.
Dule Hill, deliciously playing against type, is Angelo, the drug kingpin who brings Bo into his fold. Angelo is a classic sociopath: Charming, icy and exacting. He metes out justice with bullets and a cleaver.
Bo doesn’t like the drug work, but because he sells only cocaine and party pills to club kids in Hollywood, he justifies to himself that it’s harmless.
His challenge is to juggle his magic dreams and drug-slinging reality while protecting his sister. Latimore embodies the tenderness, fear and determination such a balancing act requires.
Meanwhile, Bo is devoted to improving his magic skills, which are secretly aided by an electromagnet he’s built into his arm. Bo is like a self-made Iron Man, with an electro-charged arm that can move metal objects without touching them.
This is how he explains a fierce-looking wound on his arm to his girlfriend, Holly (Gabriel). Holly is the kind of fictionalised female construct that can exist only in the male imagination: She’s smitten at first glance, ripe for rescuing and willing to give her hard-earned life savings to a cute magician she just met.
She and the other female characters, including Sasheer Zamata as Bo’s caring neighbour, Carmen Esposito as a seen-it-all club manager and Storm Reid as Bo’s beloved little sister, aren’t developed beyond their relationship to Bo.
Sleight is Bo’s story, which is why Latimore’s casting is crucial. His performance is so compelling that it smooths over the shortcomings in the script, direction and budget. Hill is a hoot as a man off the hinges, even if he almost veers into caricature.
Though the film suffers from pacing issues that make it feel longer than its 90-minute running time, and the drug-dealing sub-plot is heavy-handed and stereotypical, it’s a promising start for first-time director JD Dillard, who co-wrote the screenplay with producer Alex Theurer. Dillard is equally unafraid of gore and emotion, and the use of magic here feels fresh.
Sleight succeeds with its creation of a modern quasi-superhero in Bo and the launching of an electric new leading man in Latimore.