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Cheap tricks 

J.D. Dillard's thriller goes bigger than its budget.

click to enlarge LEVITATION: Thanks to an imaginative story and honest performances from Jacob Latimore and Seychelle Gabriel, "Sleight" rises above its low-budget production scale.
  • LEVITATION: Thanks to an imaginative story and honest performances from Jacob Latimore and Seychelle Gabriel, "Sleight" rises above its low-budget production scale.

Not often anymore do you get a maybe superhero, maybe sci-fi teen flick without any pre-existing tie-ins to '80s cartoons or '90s graphic novels or whatever Nickelodeon is up to since Kenan & Kel left. But here comes "Sleight," a tiny-budget pic with just enough verve and imagination to pass as a big-studio movie with big-studio-movie themes, right here on the shoulder season of what will soon become a deluge of attempted blockbusters. Its entire budget was approximately what Disney spent on every 15 seconds of "Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2," and yet if you want a tidy hero tale with a big heart and almost a complete lack of pretense, there are worse ways to spend a night at the movies.

Your small cast starts with Bo (Jacob Latimore), a 20ish Los Angeles street magician who excels at, yes, sleight of hand — card tricks, as well as other tricks that seem to defy science. He manages to make a ring hover and spin above his palm, for instance, and earns a tip as well as a phone number from its cute owner, a student named Holly (Seychelle Gabriel).

Bo's main gig is taking care of his little sister (Storm Reid); his side hustles are the magic by day and low-level street dealing by night, handing out coke and molly mostly from his sedan. Both are, in their way, honest livings, even if one requires fooling people and the other requires ducking the cops. Trouble comes when Bo's ostensible street boss, Angelo (Dulé Hill), wants to pull the kid in deeper to the drug business at a moment when Bo is ready to get the hell out. He makes a bad choice, and events degrade from there.

Writer/director J.D. Dillard doesn't let us in on the source of Bo's abilities, even as we observe early that the kid has some sort of janky, DIY, battery-powered implant in his shoulder. We've seen enough superhero movies by the year 2017 to know strange powers come in many forms, with varying degrees of plausibility, and all of them require a certain suspension of disbelief, right up to the notion that billionaire Bruce Wayne can possibly do enough crunches to step up to a brawl against Superman.

In "Sleight," the question of how hangs open for nearly the 90-minute run time. When the source of Bo's abilities comes to light, it will require a generous donation of your credulity to stay on board. The movie has other plot holes you'll be happier ignoring, like Bo's inability, even as a master pickpocket, to scrape together money in an emergency. Overall, though, you've got to hand it the ultra-low-budget Blumhouse Productions (cheapskate masterminds of the "Paranormal Activity" series and, more laudably, "Get Out") for cranking out a tight, charismatic drama on a production budget of just a quarter-million bucks.

One big reason why: Even if the movie feels, overall, like a top-rank student film, the performances mostly hold up, especially Latimore's. He's solid as the promising student who descended into this skeezy scene, never oversharing, holding Bo together as a kid of genuine appeal and yet genuine mystery. Like the rest of the film, he's doing an admirable lot with very little. No wasted moves, or money, here.

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