A lot happens before the clever opening credits roll on “Deidra & Laney Rob a Train.” Top student Deidra (Ashleigh Murray, soon to be featured in CW’s “Riverdale”) has held firm on the price of the homework she sells to some chump over the phone, wrestled her sister Laney (Rachel Crow), to the ground, and observed her mother Marigold (Danielle Nicolet), tottering under a flatscreen TV outside the “Good Buy” where she works, which she promptly throws to the ground in a fit of rage. Syncing with Liam Lynch’s “United States of Whatever,” each word in the movie’s title get its own freeze-frame visual clue — the last being a toy train.
Pace is not the problem in this snappy teen caper from director Sydney Freeland and writer Shelby Farrell. Freeland, who is Native American and transgender, previously attended Sundance in 2014 with “Drunktown’s Finest,” a drama about three young Native Americans living on a Navajo reservation in New Mexico. Early in her career, Freeland received a Disney Scholarship, and those influences are clearly on display in “Deidra & Laney Rob a Train,” which boasts the rare double whammy of a racially inclusive cast and strong female leads. Unfortunately, it’s not enough to save this train from losing steam.
Visiting their mother in jail, Deidra and Laney vow to do whatever it takes to pay her bail, but Marigold seems eerily calm, a vacant expression on her face. “You guys know what’s great about being in here?” she asks. “I get to choose between kitchen or laundry. One or the other.”
Now, it’s up to responsible Deidra to keep the family together. She has to pay the bills, dodge visits from the social worker (Kinna McInroe), and take care of Laney and their little brother (Lance Grey). With all of her worries, Deidra has no time to focus on college applications, much to the dismay of her overly enthusiastic guidance counselor (Sasheer Zamata), who thinks getting Deidra into an Ivy League school will be her ticket to a promotion.
On the off chance her absentee father (David Sullivan) can help, Deidra visits him at the rail yard where he works, and he happens to show her a newscast on a recent slew of train robberies. Bingo! Deidra enlists a reluctant Laney, and the two angel-voiced sisters begin plotting their first heist.
After some initial missteps (their first haul yields a microwave and laundry detergent), Deidra begins scanning the boxes so they only grab the good stuff: electronics. She conscripts a local pot dealer to sell the merchandise for her, which he sells on eBay out of his grandmother’s basement. When a detective working for the railway company (Tim Blake Nelson) shows up at her school, he dismisses Deidra without interviewing her, berating his partner: “Why are we interviewing the valedictorian?”
But a trail of toys leads him to suspect Laney, and he barges in on her big moment (she’s competing in the Teen Miss Idaho pageant, a half-baked subplot that features an underused Missi Pyle) and takes her away in handcuffs. Through some advanced googling, Deidra uncovers information that the detective lost his previous job for excessive use of force, and hatches up a plan to provoke him and catch it on camera. Hijinks ensue, and all is well.
Freeland is clearly having fun behind the camera, but broad and superficial performances mean the fun doesn’t always translate. As Deidra, Murray can’t quite wipe that cheerful commercial sheen from her camera-friendly face. It isn’t her fault; here, the prospect of a single mother facing prison is dealt with so lightly it makes “Orange is the New Black” look gritty. Freeland and Farrell don’t push the tragedy far enough to earn much comedy, and the result lands “Deidra & Laney Rob a Train” smack in the middle of the train tracks.
“Deidra & Laney Rob a Train” premiered in the NEXT Section of the Sundance Film Festival in 2017. It will be available on Netflix on March 17th.