The most purely enjoyable movie I’ve seen since I-can’t-remember-when, writer-director Adam Leon’s debut feature Gimme the Loot is a tiny miracle—a film brimming with so much mischief and joy that it left me in an almost insufferably good mood for days afterwards. This deceptively modest marvel proves that big things can sometimes come in small packages. It’s a warm and wonderfully human comedy that has a lot to say without ever making a big deal out of saying anything at all.
Ty Hickson and Tashiana Washington star as Malcolm and Sofia, teenage graffiti artists from the Bronx who are sick and tired of being dissed by a rival Queens gang full of Mets fans. Their dream is to get even by tagging the stupid red apple that pops up every time a home run is scored at Citi Field—which everybody in the film quite hilariously and appropriately still insists on calling Shea Stadium.
We learn quickly at the outset that “bombing the apple” has been a holy grail for graffiti artists pretty much since spray paint was invented. But Malcolm has a plan. (Malcolm has a lot of plans.) He knows a guy who works security and will let them in the ballpark after hours. Dude just wants $500 for his troubles. Aye, there’s the rub.
So begins a loosey-goosey series of harebrained schemes and misadventures in petty crime, spanning several boroughs of a New York City that feels like the world’s grittiest playground. Every corner here is bustling with life, chock full of classic N.Y.C. eccentrics bending your ear with oddball conversations dithering hither and yon. Gimme the Loot won me over early, when a lonely pot courier (Sam Soghor, one of the film’s producers) waxes melancholic about how back in the ‘90s, you never saw men wearing flip-flops. At least not in New York.
Malcolm and Sofia like to insist their relationship is strictly professional, and it’s a running joke how these two are the only people in the movie who can’t see that they’re crazy about each other. Hickson and Washington are a terrific screen couple. Malcolm’s all easygoing swagger, his head in the clouds, often blissfully unencumbered by reflection. Sofia’s feisty, with a mouth like a truck driver. She may look like a little girl playing in a big boy’s game, but wait until you see how she handles the kid who stole her bike.
Stealing, dealing and grifting is just a fact of life here, and I can already hear some of my stodgier colleagues clucking their tongues about glamorizing kid criminals or whatever gets one’s morality panties in a bunch this week. But such a lame approach does a severe disservice to what Leon has accomplished here, as Gimme the Loot is nothing if not expertly attuned to the realities of socioeconomic disparity; the film just chooses to entertain instead of preach.
Take, for instance, a wonderful scene in which Malcolm delivers weed to a hippie-dippy Greenwich Village rich girl, perfectly played by Zoe Lescaze. First he’s just casing the joint looking for something to steal, but then the two quickly hit a flirty frission, each fascinated by the other’s alien lifestyle. “My mom’s in Nantucket,” she explains. He answers, as he should: “What the fuck is Nantucket?”
Lescaze’s subplot takes an unexpected turn that feels exactly right once you get there. Indeed, you only realize in retrospect that Gimme the Loot is full of surprises that you probably should have known were coming all along. But just like our romantically mismatched taggers, sometimes we can’t see what’s obvious.
Leon got his start working as a production assistant for Woody Allen, and their visions of New York couldn’t possibly seem more dissimilar. (Leon’s has people of color, for starters.) But they’re bonded by an infatuation with the city as a realm of endless possibility, as well as a shared affinity for long, loping dialogue scenes. There’s no herky-jerky shaky-cam here; Leon’s shots are cleanly composed and give the actors room to breathe.
The title shouts out to Notorious B.I.G., but the soundtrack is vintage doo-wop and sweet ‘60s soul, lending a nostalgic glow to a present-tense tale. At a breezy hour and 20 minutes, Gimme the Loot runs not one second longer than it needs to. But I still didn’t want it to end.