Musician-turned-filmmaker Cory McAbee’s first two movie musicals, “The American Astronaut” and the episodically-distributed “Stingray Sam,” brilliantly melded a concept album approach with expressionistic science fiction imagery for a unique form of pop art. At just under an hour and driven by the thinnest of stories, his third feature “Crazy & Thief” is stylistically distinct from the earlier efforts but still hails from the same enjoyable realm of musical fantasy.
Shot on the cheap and co-starring his two very young children, “Crazy & Thief” is a gentle treat for McAbee enthusiasts and a mildly curious study of juvenile behavior for everyone else, which is certainly enough to satisfy this fan. Adorable to the extreme, the movie centers around McAbee’s children Vy and John, alternately identified by the titular names as well as “Johnny” and “Yaya,” informal designations that fit their youthful spirit.
The plot is outlined by Vy, who’s around the age of seven and so senior to the three-year-old Johnny. Wandering down a Brooklyn street with nary an adult in sight, Vy draws a “star map” on coloring paper and announces that the duo must follow its outline to discover stars throughout the city. Don’t think about it too hard: As with McAbee’s previous efforts, the premise quickly gives way to the bouncy rock melodies of the director’s band, The Billy Nayer Show.
McAbee’s rhythms and repetitive lyrics are immanently catchy, and he applies them to movement with a seamless integration that shifts the experience from literal to poetic. In “Crazy & Thief,” the opening track “Walkin’ With Their Eyes Closed” underscores the children’s odyssey as they simmer down the sidewalk, neatly establishing the plucky urban adventure that follows. As the tone shifts from nostalgic to sublime and melancholic, “Crazy & Thief” marvelously inhabits its young protagonists’ world with a conviction that calls to mind “Peanuts” by way of Michel Gondry.
Like the Charles Schultz cartoon, McAbee is never condescending to his subjects: The camera always remains on his children’s level as he subtitles the eternally curious Johnny’s rambling questions and odd declarations, bringing them into focus as though they commanded great philosophical weight. Vy, conversely, takes on the sage-like leader role despite the constant wonder present in her eyes.
However, even she gets mystified and frightened by the busy world surrounding them.”Crazy & Thief” introduces a strange kind of peril when the children run into a scowling street character played by McAbee regular Gregory Russel Cook, whose initially gruff demeanor turns out to be one of many surface appearances to take an unlikely direction.
Taken at face value, the movie forms an extraordinary treatise on the distinction between child and adult perspectives on the nature of reality. Every grimy corner or patch of dirt seems to hold a greater significance to the pair as they continue their irreverent mission to its delightfully otherworldly finale (no spoilers except to say that it involves the most technologically advanced cardboard box this side of “Calvin and Hobbes”). At one point, true to his alternate name, Johnny steals an orange from the supermarket and escapes unscathed, pointing to the way the movie casually unplugs from the real world.
There’s enough magic throughout “Crazy & Thief” to make one wish McAbee took the material a few steps further. At 52 minutes, the movie sustains its musical tracks but feels like a scrappier experiment in contrast to the technical achievements of his previous works. Of course, its deceptive simplicity is the raison d’être of McAbee’s formula. Using digital video and a shaky cam approach, McAbee has made the indie equivalent of an all-ages variety show. (In an interview with Indiewire, he cited both Joe Swanberg and “Sesame Street” as inspirations.)
It’s hard not to see “Crazy & Thief” as McAbee’s ode to the value of good parenting, as the movie routinely shows off his enthusiastic kids in virtually every shot. Sometimes his meandering approach distracts from the more lucid visions he occasionally manages to conjure. More blatantly self-serving than his other work, there’s no doubting that “Crazy & Thief” will make quite the home video in the McAbee household. That’s not an excuse note for its indulgences, but needless to say McAbee’s home videos charm better than the most.
Criticwire grade: B+
HOW WILL IT PLAY? The movie has been well-received at festivals so far (it’s currently screening at the L.A. Film Fest) and should find another appreciative crowd at Brooklyn Academy of Music’s BAMcinemaFest in the coming days. While not bound for a conventional theatrical release, McAbee’s previous success with hybrid distribution suggests he could find an innovative method to ensure “Crazy & Thief” finds its audience.