"Gimme the Loot," which just picked up the Grand Jury prize at this year's SXSW Film Festival, is a movie too earnest and well intentioned to truly hate. (It also, mercifully, is free of many of the hallmarks of this year's crop of films – rape, the woods, couples bickering, "found footage"). But it's also agonizing and dull; you want to love it, to give it a big warm hug, but you end up scowling at it from across the room.
Hickson and Washington play Malcolm and Sofia, a pair of teenage graffiti artists. In the opening scene we watch as they steal cans of spray paint from a local hardware store, jumping into the beat-up van of a tattooed thug named Champion. From there, it follows one very long day in their lives – they wake up to see that their graffiti has been painted over by a rival gang, which gives them the idea to "bomb the apple." If they can spray paint that apple with their insignias, then they will instantly become legendary. No one will fuck with their artistic vandalism anymore. What follows could have been a highly mechanized roll out – they hatch the plot, put the players together, and go through with the plan. Except that this is some micro-budget indie and not "Ocean's Fourteen," so instead the movie takes a more meandering path that fans of the film will probably describe as "poetic," but anyone else will find "pointless."
Malcolm has a mysterious contact within the CitiField security team and he promises to let them in the next morning if they can come up with $500. Since neither of them has that kind of cash (they jump turnstiles and steal flowers), they're forced to pinball around, frantically attempting to secure funds. There are a series of misadventures that befall our two main characters – Malcolm steals some weed from a local dealer and sells it to that dealer's cousin, a precocious upper class white girl. She makes out with him but when her cousin shows up, Malcolm runs out of the apartment, leaving behind his shoes. When he comes back to retrieve his kicks, the girl is sitting around with her high society friends and she acts like he's nothing to her. Instead of calling him Malcolm she just refers to him as "drug dealer," and what could have been a sobering wake-up call about the social strata of Manhattan and the outlying boroughs becomes too on-the-nose. More humiliating embarrassments befall Sofia, including a failed cell phone sale and getting harassed by the rival graffiti gang, who scrawl their logo on her T-shirt.
If either actor has any formal training it's not apparent. While Washington does give us something to connect to, Hickson is all wiry mannerisms and affectations, and both seem to be riffing in a semi-improvisational style that doesn't give the dialogue space as much as it fills it with a bunch of breathy "niggas" and "fucks." Their interactions with their peers is more naturalistic but still uninvolving, and oftentimes the narrative veers so far off track that you temporarily forget what they're trying to accomplish. "Oh right, money to get into CitiField to spray paint a giant apple," you remember. Before asking yourself, "Then why is she selling their cans of spray paint?" Oh, for money for the CitiField break in, but… Thus is the ouroboros of thinking about this movie.
Writer/director Adam Leon clearly wanted to illuminate this world, and his exploration of both a cultural and social subculture makes you think his inspirations were equal parts "Do the Right Thing" and "Rounders." But his writing is clumsy and his direction is clumsier; awkward pauses and moments in the script that seem cheap or insubstantial could have been compensated for by whip smart direction. Sadly, that isn't the case here. Shots will often go on and on, as we walk with the two characters, watching them dip, dive and maneuver through New York City sidewalk traffic. While on one hand this works, at least thematically (they're marginalized, two tiny fish in a huge stream, and yet they have these grand plans) from a visual standpoint it doesn't work. It seems like a no-budget version of the Aaron Sorkin walk-and-talk, except it's unfocused (sometimes literally – there's a basketball game at one point that seems to be played by large pixels) and, like much of the movie, not all that engaging. Other times, we'll watch the two characters enter a park and the camera will just pivot, panning with them as they walk. In some other context this could work (you can imagine De Palma pulling something like it off quite handily), but here it just seems like it was the path of least resistance to a shot that was clearly stolen, guerrilla-style.
"Gimme the Loot" is a small, kindhearted, easily accessible indie that people who don't watch a lot of movies will probably adore. (It was rapturously received by our approving film festival crowd and if it gets distribution can probably expect similar responses nationwide.) But it's too slight, never engaging fully with either conceit – it's not really about the graffiti subculture in New York, neither is it some kind of irreverent crime movie. It's just dull, baggy and poorly photographed. But at least it doesn't have rape. Or woods. [C-]