At the world premiere of "Gimme the Loot" at the SXSW Film Festival, writer-director Adam Leon said he'd been working on reshoots only a few months earlier. That encapsulates the main ingredient driving this delightfully scrappy first feature about young New York graffiti artists, a stitched-together combo of outlaw energy and bittersweet romance that gives the impression of Little Rascals in the big city. Like the graffiti art it documents, it's a lovingly handmade affair.
Leon's pair of stars are Bronx teens Malcolm (Tysheeb Hickson) and Sofia (Tashiana R. Washington), a platonic couple who spend their days tagging rooftops with their distinctive logos. The endeavor gets problematic when a rival gang enters their turf and scribbles all over their art. That's one of two main storylines; the other involves Malcolm's attempt to swindle an affluent stoner (Zoë Lescaze) after gaining access to her apartment as a drug dealer.
But mainly, "Gimme the Loot" simply observes its charming ne'er-do-wells as they hurtle through an inner-city lifestyle with little choice except to keep moving forward. From the first scene, in which the duo awkwardly jack paint canisters from a store and hop into their getaway car, Leon establishes his characters as a pair of lawbreakers living on the fringes of society but who remain essentially innocent, giggly children. Inhabiting the same bubble of hip-hop attitude as "Wild Style" did nearly 30 years earlier, Leon's movie resurrects the subculture with genre charm and low-budget appeal.
Following Sofia and Malcolm through a series of misadventures set to an energetic soundtrack of soul music, "Gimme the Loot" meanders aplenty but finds two reliable anchors in its leads. Washington infuses Sophia with a feisty attitude that keeps all the crude libido of a male-dominated world at bay; physically charged in a way rarely seen among female screen performances even today, she's a genuine discovery.
Malcolm's extreme self-confidence routinely clashes with his underlying klutziness to hilarious effect. Fired from the drug-dealing business, he still manages to sneak away with a few dime bags before his former employees steal his shoes, forcing him to roam the city barefoot. Later, attempting to nab jewelry from the fancy abode of the young woman he tries to seduce, he only manages to grab a handful from her change jar.
The slapstick elements of "Gimme the Loot" are matched by an impressive sensitivity toward the environment: From a 20-year-old opening clip about the aspirations of graffiti artists hoping to tag the Home Run Apple in Citi Field, to Sofia and Malcolm's lopsided quest to do exactly that, Leon enlivens a self-contained universe of grimy city streets and yet never fetishizes the impoverished backdrop. His protagonists don't waste time complaining about where they want to go in life; they've already arrived at a stable destination defined by their illegal hobbies. The attempted theft in the final third maintains the levity of a heist movie. As a result, "Gimme the Loot" avoids condescending to its setting. No outsider perspectives intrude here.
Shot on streets and decrepit buildings with plenty of transparency toward its microbudget roots, "Gimme the Loot" has a lot of jagged edges. Bit players lack the controlled performances of the two leads; some camerawork and pacing suffer from amateurish qualities. But Leon has a safety valve here: The scrappy elements inform the DIY spirit in a movie designed to celebrate just that.
Criticwire grade: B+
HOW WILL IT PLAY? "Gimme the Loot" won the Grand Jury Prize at SXSW last year and gathered further acclaim at Cannes as well as New Directors/New Films. That prestige quality may help it perform decently in limited release, although its long-term prospects are weaker.