‘Dayveon’ is Dynamic and Devastating

by Warren Cantrell on September 15, 2017

in Print Reviews,Reviews

[Rating: Solid Rock Fist Up]

Bees appear a lot in Dayveon, and not by accident. Dayveon (Devin Blackmon) lives in Arkansas with his sister and her kind-hearted boyfriend, Brian (Dontrell Bright), and is struggling to find his place in a difficult world. At 13, Dayveon just lost his older brother in a gang shooting, and is at a crossroads regarding what comes next in a society that has precious few doors open to him. Like the bees that haunt his yard, the universe seems ready and eager to swarm and sting Dayveon every time he so much as ventures out the front door. And while staying at home, with his family, might appear to be the boring option, life outside that protective cocoon is stocked with equal parts excitement and peril.

As the film opens, it’s clear that there’s a lot of anger in Dayveon’s heart as a result of the loss of his brother, and it’s not something he’s equipped to deal with. His sister and Brian do their best to guide the young man through this difficult period, yet there’s only so much they can do with a toddler of their own and Brian working the night shift full-time. His parents gone, and his guardians doing the best they can just to keep a roof over everyone’s heads, it seems sadly inevitable that Dayveon will fall in with the local Bloods chapter. The gang offers Dayveon a place within their community and protection against the stings of the world as a surrogate for the strong brother he’s lost.

Yet the gang members sting too, and see Dayveon as a resource for their petty criminal doings, and little else. Yet these young men are little more than small-time hoods knocking off liquor stores and dice games for pocket change, and this is important. Indeed, the film could have taken an easy path by showing an enticing reward to the heavy risk of gang life, yet these Bloods aren’t moving bricks of heroin or crates of guns. They are perpetrating nickel-and-dime jobs because it is easy and convenient, and except for one gang member (a fascinating sub-plot sadly under-realized), all seem to have given up on the honest life Brian is pushing on his surrogate brother.

Dayveon follows its eponymous lead as he balances the expectations of his family with that of his surrogate one (the Bloods), both of whom are wrestling for control of the young man’s soul. Neither side offers Dayveon much in the way of security or emotional healing, which seems entirely appropriate to the world this movie lives in. Dayveon has to learn to take ownership of his life and his grief, and whether that’s in a confined space, indoors, or at the mercy of the bee swarm outside, nothing will be easy for the kid. This is the struggle facing so many African-American youths in 2017 America, and it is brought to life with magnificent focus and clarity in Dayveon.

The film is the directorial debut of Amman Abbasi, who grew up and lives in Arkansas, and seems to have a keen understanding of that state’s distinct urban culture. The characters speak in a thick, sometimes indecipherable southern Midland dialect that rings true to the setting, and the characters that inhabit it. These people work hard just to keep their heads above water, and it’s clear that a person like Dayveon could fall through the cracks of modern society with the ease of a stone tumbling down a mountain. Whether or not he will is the central question of Dayveon.

Abbasi makes a number of deliberate decisions with his presentation of the material that demonstrates a thoughtful, discriminating eye behind the camera. For example, the very presentation of the movie itself has something to say. Filmed in a tight 4:3 ratio, Dayveon naturally evokes a boxed-in aesthetic that eschews the broad, widescreen shots that might have injected a bit of sexiness into the picture. There’s nothing glamorous about this world, nor is there any broader implication or truth to be found in the luscious Arkansas woods and lived-in back-alleys presented here. Like a community that is stuck with cumbersome dial T.V.’s rather than flatscreen sets so many others now have, this world gets by on the scraps from yesteryear. There aren’t any widescreen moments for young Dayveon: no 16:9 sunset epiphanies.

As the picture moves into its final act, Dayveon must confront the reality of his decisions and come to terms with the man he is becoming. The last portion in particular, which leads up to a robbery, is a masterful exercise in building tension via a series of cross-cuts and suggestive dark lighting. It’s a well-earned scene that plays up the drama that’s been established with character work: all of which builds to this singular moment.

At just 75 minutes, Dayveon does feel a bit thin at times, which is all the more agonizing considering the potential some of the tangential plots contain. As already mentioned, the established gang member being pulled between life with the Bloods and honest work in the real world is an interesting yet unexplored parallel to Dayveon’s story, as is the life Brian leads in the wings. Further, the tug of war between family and social acceptance is a clear theme that could have been counterbalanced better by establishing why Dayveon is so turned off by the former and not the latter. It feels like a missed opportunity, yet not one big enough to derail the effort as a whole.

A quiet, cerebral meditation on poverty, adolescence, gang culture, and “family,” Dayveon tells a complicated story in a startlingly accessible way. Opening Sept. 22 at the Screenland Tapcade, don’t let the bees swarming outside your door keep you away from this one.

“Obvious Child” is the debut novel of Warren Cantrell, a film and music critic based out of Seattle, Washington. Mr. Cantrell has covered the Sundance and Seattle International Film Festivals, and provides regular dispatches for Scene-Stealers and his own site, 10rant.com. Warren holds a B.A. and M.A. in History, and his hobbies include bourbon drinking, novel writing, and full-contact kickboxing. Mr. Cantrell is happily unmarried, and without any children, pets, or plants.

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