There's a scene in Adam Leon's Gimme the Loot that legitimately frightened me. Sophia, one of a pair of teenagers looking for a way to bomb (tag with graffiti) the un-bombable Home Run Apple at Shea Stadium ("Citi? Dude, I'm not calling it after some stupid bank. It's called Shea Stadium.") is on her way out of an apartment building after selling some paint cans and shoes, and she's attacked by a group of boys in a rival tagging group, who grab her violently and pull her into the building's entryway, out of view of the street.
Perhaps because American cinema has an obsession with voyeuristic representations of rape and the sexualization of women, especially women of color, I instantly braced myself for something horrific to happen to her. Instead, director Adam Leon completely surprised me. Sophia doesn't emerge unscathed – her money is stolen and she gets tagged across her chest, but in a way that avoids sexualization – but Leon avoids the exploitative gaze that most directors unapologetically employ.
In many ways, Gimme the Loot is a surprising departure from films about "street kids" to which we've become accustomed. One only needs to see any film by Larry Clark to understand where the gritty-stories-about-kids narrative can go completely off the rails. Films like Kids and Ken Park have a voyeuristic, almost masturbatory feel to them. This is when they're not trying so desperately to be "about" something (even if that something is being aggressively about nothing) as to be farcical. Gimme the Loot is fun, charming and incredibly watchable, with French New Wave and mumblecore influences (this film would have felt right at home in black and white) and two relative unknowns as rock-solid anchors.
The film follows Sophia (Tashiana Washington) and Malcolm (Ty Hickson) as they try to beg, borrow and steal the $500 needed to bribe their way into the stadium. They're both latchkey kids, coarse and hardened – especially Sophia - but there's a tenderness that shines through both of them. Washington in particular is endearing even as she's letting loose a stream of obscenities, at Malcolm, at a scamming convenience store cashier – she's not one to suffer fools gladly. Meanwhile, Ty Hickson as Malcolm delivers a sweetly understated performance, even as he's launching into false-bravado talk of shooting rival taggers or plotting to rob a girl (Zoe Lescaze) that just hours before announced his love for – watching the end of that relationship, as it were, is convincingly performed but painful to watch.
Even so, this is a comedy, and it's very funny in places. Champion, an older neighborhood petty criminal and mentor to Sophia and Malcolm (played by fellow newcomer Meeko) is particularly funny, trying to maintain an air of authority over the two even as he and Malcolm argue over what floor they're on. It's a testament to everyone involved that the dialogue never feels canned, or stilted, or unnatural. You feel like you're palling around with these kids. The conversations are real, feel spontaneous and never attempt to push the film too far into a statement.
And yet, the film is a statement in spite of itself. Despite their rough exterior and criminal misdeeds, you get the sense that both Sophia and Malcolm both have success ahead of them if they can stay out of trouble. Sophia, in particular, has a swagger and a confidence that can take her far in life. But this is a New York City that isn't seen much anymore. It's a lower-class New York, where kids go from schools to jails. Where a kid like Malcolm gets stopped and frisked because he's Black and therefore suspicious, and they find a quarter-ounce of marijuana on him, so they put him in jail, charge him as an adult and pile on the charges. One less drug dealer on the streets, while the white guy supplying Malcolm goes about his day unimpeded.
Gimme the Loot never strays too far into these issues, preferring to limit the story to its protagonists, and that's a good choice. And while it's hard to watch the film and ignore the trepidation that you have for these two kids that are good at their hearts, Leon manages to carry you through it with optimism and an ending that is perfectly pitched and will leave you smiling, if slightly melancholy.
Every once in a while a film comes along that launches multiple careers at once, out of nowhere. Think American Graffiti or Diner or Dazed and Confused. I'm not sure that Gimme the Loot, with its extremely limited release, will be quite so readily recognized, but Hickson, Washington, and Leon are going to stick around, and Leon's future seems especially bright. He's created in Gimme the Loot an exciting, vibrant story, avoiding all the usual traps (Tashiana Washington is gorgeous, but Sophia's appeal to the boys in this movie is multifaceted and we never feel like she's there to be ogled) and delivering a funny, touching and eminently watchable movie. When all is said and done, this is going to be on my shortlist for best films of 2013.