Today’s film universe is filled with big movies, tiny movies, and everything in between. But few have the fabulous, dirty swagger of Adam Leon’s debut feature “Gimme the Loot,” a picture made for about sixty-five cents (give or take) that somehow looks and feels like a million bucks.
Actually, “Gimme the Loot” cost quite a bit more than sixty-five cents to make (its production budget was reportedly around $65,000), nut its vibe – freewheeling, open-hearted, just a little bit disreputable – is a special kind of production value that can’t be bought at any price. Malcolm and Sofia (played by marvelous newcomers Ty Hickson and Tashiana Washington) are Bronx graffiti kids – artists, really, though they don’t have the hubris to call themselves that – who find that a rival gang from Queens has been tagging over their stuff. To establish supremacy on their turf, they decide to tag, or “bomb,” the big plastic apple that bobs up from the stands at Citi Field whenever a Mets player hits a home run, a goal that has eluded every graffiti artist since time began – or at least, as we learn from a vintage episode of a (faux) public-access cable-TV show called “All City Hour,” since some enterprising tagger came up with the idea 20 years ago.
But to get into the stadium, they need to bribe a security guard. To do that, they need $500. So they hatch a plan that ends up involving three days of laborious (and often hilarious) legwork on the hot summer streets.
Malcolm and Sofia are good kids who do some sort-of bad things. But mostly, they just try to get by with low-level hustling -- making the occasional marijuana delivery, for instance. That’s how Malcolm meets, and sort of falls for, a rich-girl strawberry blonde (played by Zoë Lescaze, coming off as a spacy, deadpan pre-Raphaelite), who just happens to have a cache of jewelry he thinks he might be able to steal. “Thinks” is the operative word here, and almost every other meager plan the duo come up with backfires as well: Sofia confiscates the cell phone of one of the two neighborhood urchins who steal her bike and later tries to sell it, only to be outdone by a couple of scummy bodega dudes.
There’s also a possible love story buzzing beneath the main plot: Malcolm and Sofia are just friends, maybe because they’re too close to be boyfriend and girlfriend. The actors keep that cautious crackle going every minute: They’re wonderful together, bickering with each other, rattling off mock-insults, each filling in the gaps of the other’s knowledge of random stuff. When Sofia claims she doesn’t know what a yarmulke is, Malcolm describes it to her, and she shoots back brightly, “Oh, those things with the bobby pins in it?”
That seemingly throwaway line is a key to what keeps “Gimme the Loot” spinning: New York is a city where an almost impossible variety of racial and ethnic groups are jammed into pretty close quarters, and there’s no other choice but to make it work day by day, and to keep going even when your goals are not only elusive, but possibly ridiculous. (The story here gets so terrifically squirrelly that you almost forget what Malcolm and Sofia have set out to do in the first place.) Leon is a native New Yorker, a white guy who grew up in the West Village, and he and his cinematographer Jonathan Miller see the city as insiders do: Much of the movie was shot without permits, on the fly, and the filmmakers know the city is most beautiful when it’s seen that way. Historic brownstones are lovely, sure. But the real archeological treasures of this sprawling yet weirdly compact metropolis, the elements that capture its stubborn vitality, are faded bodega signs, rows of little houses bedecked with front porches that people actually use, basketball courts that are the loneliest places on Earth when they’re empty and as convivial as ballrooms when they’re not.
“Gimme the Loot” is a true New York City movie, alive every minute. There’s some Woody Allen in its veins, but it’s driven more by the free-for-all spirit you find in pictures like Peter Sollett’s 2002 “Raising Victor Vargas” and Spike Lee’s 1986 “She’s Gotta Have It,” two other New York movies made by talented people on half a frayed shoestring. In the movie’s press notes, Leon says he wanted to make an adventure set in New York City, something fun but also “set in this authentically gritty world, centered around these kids from tough neighborhoods who weren’t necessarily miserable people living horrific lives.” The city has its share of tragedy and sadness, it’s true, but that’s not its defining characteristic. The life of the city is more like that thing held on with bobby pins: Precarious and wonderful, and somehow, against all odds, it keeps hanging on.