On a soft, Arkansas summer afternoon, a young black teenager rides his bicycle down a two-lane road, recounting in his head all the things around him that are stupid. The sky, his shirt, his bike, that house. Everything is stupid because his older brother, T, is dead, shot, though we never know how or why. Dayveon respected his brother, maybe because of his gang affiliation, maybe simply because he was kin, a man who could show him a way, not that there are many to be had in this rural town.
Dayveon lives with his sister, Kim, and her boyfriend, Brian, a close friend of T’s, who seems to have stayed clear of gang life. The couple have a toddler they care for in shifts, Brian working his steady job all night, while Kim spends her days looking for work. That’s one way to be, settled and employed, and without much urging from Kim, Brian works earnestly to keep Dayveon close, understanding the powerful draw of other alternatives.
The strongest of these lies down the road with a group of older boys, young men, Bloods, another concept of family, who lay claim to Dayveon almost without him knowing it, jumping him in with a brief, ad hoc ceremony that seems more like a humiliating prank than a beating. Afterward, their leader, Mook, tells Dayveon that if anything’s bothering him the gang will protect him. And if the gang needs him, they’ll be in touch, too.
But aside from the unruly pressures of the gang, carrying him with increasing speed through darkness into petty crimes and violence, Dayveon’s troubles are mostly internal, and it’s these struggles Amman Abbasi’s debut feature is interested in exploring. Race is no issue here, nor is poverty, though the latter is eminently present in the landscape. Rather, the characters treat their broader situation in the world as a settled issue. The central concern is how one will support and be supported within this tenuous world, how and when one will embrace responsibility, show love and be loved. A recurring visual metaphor of a swarming beehive Dayveon must approach to take out the trash provides a complex sense of the challenges of inclusion and protection, of being inside and out.
The construction of Dayveon‘s ambiguous yet gritty, tactile world is one of the film’s great pleasures. Tightly-framed, vérité cinematography speaks in deeply subjective portraits reminiscent of the work of several notable Southern photographers. The images are rich with shadow and glistening skin, a teen’s half-lit world of interiority, awkwardness, sexuality, and self-consciousness. At moments of growing tension, Dominic LaPerriere and Michael Carter’s creative editing beautifully dances with time, visualizing a nervous joy or unease that’s plenty effective without the noisy crescendos of the sometimes overbearing score.
The performances by the all non-professional cast are more restrained by comparison. Sometimes silent, sometimes mumbling, the actors have a remarkably natural and authentic presence, bearing the weight of every challenge with moving dignity.