“Look at that stupid house. Stupid tree. Stupid rock. Stupid concrete. Stupid people.” The voiceover continues like that in a low mumble as a 13-year-old black teen wheels his pink bike through the economically depressed Arkansas town that he calls home. “Everything stupid.”
A little movie about a little man with a huge hole in his heart, “Dayveon” gives its young title character (Devin Blackmon) plenty of reason to be frustrated with the world. His older brother, memorialized by the airbrushed portrait that hangs on Dayveon’s bedroom wall, was shot and killed in 2014, presumably as a result of some business involving the local sect of Bloods who hang out down the street. His name was Trevor, and a loaded handgun is the only thing he left behind. When he’s alone in the house, Dayveon dives into his shoebox of secret stuff and holds the weapon in his hands, unsure of what it might be able to do for him.
On its most basic level, you’ve seen this movie before. There have been any number of roughhewn indies about impressionable kids who are forced to choose between the pull of violence and a pinhole of light, but Amman Abbasi’s debut feature revitalizes a familiar coming-of-age story by telling it with a rare sense of truth.
Shot with raw specificity and a remarkable sense of place, “Dayveon” doesn’t cut through its clichés so much as it is reclaims them as the stuff of real life, its wide-eyed hero navigating an adolescence in which gang culture is made all the more appealing by its predictability. In addition to filling the fraternal void that Dayveon’s brother left in his wake, the Bloods also offer him some much-needed internal logic in the wake of his world being flipped upside down. Left by himself in the airy, dilapidated house that he shares with his soft-spoken older sister (Chasity Moore) and her mechanic boyfriend, Bryan (Dontrell Bright), Dayveon is completely at a loss; everything is empty and the whole world feels stupid.
The only other person in his life is Brayden (Kordell “KD” Johnson), a gawky kid who lives down the street and defaults to a smile despite the fact that he was recently shot in the leg by a Magnum .357. Both boys are “jumped in” to the Bloods, but the film’s best moments find them hanging out by themselves, skipping rocks by the sunset and otherwise passing the time with a vivid lack of purpose. Like everyone here, Johnson and Blackmon are so believable that the more erratically-lensed sequences could be confused for non-fiction — two standouts in a movie that’s entirely cast with first-time actors, their performances are nuanced and naturalistic in equal measure.
Co-written by Abbasi and Steven Reneau, the sketched out script cycles between scenes of Dayveon hanging out with Bryan, Braydon, and the Bloods as though he were auditioning all the men in his town to be his new brother, or trying to figure out what brotherhood even means. “I’m trying to show your motherfucking ass some love,” one of the gang members tells Dayveon after beating him senseless as part of his initiation into their group.
If the film is too small and self-contained to resonate beyond its brief running time, the love that Dayveon is looking for is sufficiently immense to fill an epic. And, in one of the movie’s most refreshing touches, the kid actually finds it. Or some. It’s all around him.
His sister is sweet, and Bryan has a mess of strength to offer. The Bloods aren’t evil, they’re just trying to get by. It’s not that no one cares about Dayveon, but rather that it’s hard for Dayveon to care about anyone in return. This dynamic is mirrored in the film’s aesthetic, which juxtaposes the limitations of Dayveon’s emotional and financial reality with the endless periwinkle glow of the Arkansas skylines (the film veers closer to beautification than it does poverty porn, the Bloods’ red colors popping against the rural greenery, but it never risks falling prey to either). The world stretches away from him in every direction, but his entire life is confined to the length of a few dirt roads, and squeezed in by the screen itself.
Shot in a boxy 4:3 aspect-ratio and buzzing with understated insect metaphors, “Dayveon” is as indebted to the rough poetic humanism of Andrea Arnold as it is to the rural dreaminess of executive producer David Gordon Green (specifically “George Washington”). But even when Abbasi is overwhelmed by his influences, and even when his story begins to trace a very recognizable trajectory during its abruptly plot-driven final act, Dayveon still feels like his own person. When the movie ends, he’s still in the process of becoming, and with a long way to go, but it’s quietly moving to watch him find something he can hold on to between all the stupid that surrounds us.
“Dayveon” premiered in the NEXT section of the 2017 Sundance Film Festival. It is currently seeking U.S. distribution.