Who knew a street-centered narrative could be so sweetly buoyant as Adam Leon’s Gimme the Loot? Modern storytelling tends to look only at one side of a life lived in the hood, wading through the mud to capture and romanticize the difficulties inherent to an existence where simply getting by day to day proves to be a Herculean feat. Gimme the Loot almost feels like a response to those cliches, except that Leon actively chooses not to follow the polar opposite tract by indulging in straight-up fantasy about the world his protagonists, Malcolm (Ty Hickson) and Sofia (Tashiana Washington), inhabit; he instead aims for balance, harmony between exuberance and struggle as he records a day in the life of these two young people.
And he hits his mark with absurdly charming ease. Gimme the Loot‘s foremost characteristic is its effervescent veneer- put simply, it’s a lot of fun- but Leon smartly sculpts his film so as to render it a bubbly work of substance, exploring matters of class and race as Malcolm and Sofia engage in marathon hustling in an attempt to make a name for themselves as graffiti art legends. Their master plan? Tag Shea Stadium’s Home Run Apple, an artifact so supremely tacky that it’s a dream target for street writers looking for instant glory and notoriety both within the culture and without. Malcolm claims he has a reliable inside man who can give them access to the giant mechanical pomaceous fruit, but his contact requires a $500 dollar bribe. It’s so hard to find good help these days.
So Malcolm and Sofia set out to collect the steep levy by any means necessary. That involves a lot of petty theft and the occasional chicanery; when we meet the duo they’re in the middle of quietly robbing a hardware store blind of all of its spray paint cans. Not too long after, Malcolm lies his way into receipt of drugs that aren’t his, which he sells to Ginnie, a spoiled, rich, white girl living downtown. If any of this is shocking or upsetting to you, it may help to realize that Malcolm and Sofia are just playing by the rules of the boroughs they come from; swipe what you can, when you can. The corollary to this is that those who steal get stolen from. Malcolm, for instance, loses his shoes, the price one pays for swindling his former boss and getting high with a customer.
Sofia, on the other hand, has some of her dignity snatched from her while Malcolm enjoys his own product and Ginnie’s kisses. Isn’t that the way it goes? A lioness does most of the hunting for her pride, after all, and Sofia covers ground with impressive speed, calling in debts and a pawning cell phone she pinches from the accomplice of a bike thief. Meanwhile, Malcolm goofs off, mostly in comfort until his employer comes calling and he has to leave in a hurry. For a time, Leon’s telling two very different coming of age stories- one about a young man’s first love, one about a young woman learning lessons through abuse (physical and verbal) and outright deception. She plays the game, but the game plays her back.
When these disparate threads wind back together, there’s a moment where things could have gotten muddled, or at least ugly. Shouldn’t we expect Sofia, who’s had a pretty bloody awful morning by anybody’s standards, to haul off and slug Malcolm for being less than useless? Hickson makes him so lovably dorky that one suspects nobody can really stay mad at him for long, and besides that Sofia’s too inwardly shy to express her true feelings and show vulnerability. When she does, the transformation Washington undergoes is astounding; one moment she’s tough as nails, the next she’s on the verge of sheepishly hesitant girlishness. It’s an excellent performance that’s perhaps better described as a tightrope walk than anything else.
But Leon uses that character dichotomy wisely and reconnects his heroes without missing a beat. Of course Sofia brushes off Malcolm’s slackerdom. She’s too timid to confront it, and so Gimme the Loot stays on track to the very end. That destination doesn’t take much time to reach- the film is only an hour and twenty minutes long- but the economy of storytelling here works. Eighty minutes is all it takes for Malcolm and Sofia to develop into fully-rounded characters (that’s to the credit of both Leon’s assured direction and Hickson’s and Washington’s acting) and to go through real, tangible arcs; ultimately it’s the experience that’s meaningful, and not their ill-fated bid to bomb Shea Stadium. (Bombing like graffiti, not terrorists.)
Maybe it’s little wonder that we come to care so much for these people as the navigate oceans both familiar and foreign; Leon, sitting on the opposite side of the lens, clearly cares greatly for them himself. That affection, coupled with the tonal equilibrium he strikes within the film, makes Gimme the Loot a refreshing, necessary entry in contemporary indie filmmaking. There’s craft here, well thought-out craft to boot, that crops up in elements ranging from cinematography to seamless editing; maybe it looks like the whole thing cost peanuts to produce, but in spite of that Gimme the Loot never feels cheap, and that’s an important distinction. It’s an effective message for independently-minded artists everywhere- vision and talent can take you, and your audiences much farther than deep pockets.