It begins with two young men plotting a robbery. Originally their plan had been to steal from houses, but they’ve just shopped at a local convenience store. Wouldn’t it be easier, one of them suggests, simply to return and rob that? They’d need to be in disguise, of course. So they go to another nearby store and ask for “any kind of mask.” Then one of them decides to remove his shirt, presumably forgetting that he’s covered in distinctive tattoos. With this kind of genius at work, it’s clear that things aren’t going to go well – but this is only a taste of what New York City’s petty criminals have to offer.
Sam Garcia Southern’s quirky yet personable début film segues one short story into another as we spend a day exploring the city’s lowlife. We witness drug deals, visits to gun dealers, kids dropping things off roofs, scammers ripping off tourists and some deeds so dark that you really don’t want to think about them. Reminiscent of Pulp Fiction in structure and sometimes in tone, the film blends these elements together in a light and fluid way, inviting us to feel curious about every stranger we see. Covid-19 aside, it’s everything the tourist board doesn’t want you to see.
There are none of the shadow traditionally associated with cinematic depictions of inner city life here. It’s a bright, sunny day, the weather apparently hot, doing away with the illusion that crime always takes place out of sight, making it clear that most of these people are not in the least ashamed of what they do. That absence of shame in turn makes room for an element of playfulness in several of the vignettes; it’s easy to like most of these people because they like themselves, and their despicable behaviours often seem like a product of their environment. Southern invites us to adopt an amoral stance as we watch them, then pulls that comfortable rug out from under us in the final act.
There’s lots of good acting here but the heavily stylised nature of the film, important in creating a sense of coherence, limits what the actors can do, and this is sometimes a weakness. It’s attractively shot, making good use of the three dimensionality of urban spaces. Southern’s distinctive approach suggests that this is a testing ground for a filmmaker whose profile could rise high. Although it takes its time to really grip, the film certainly makes an impression, and its stronger segments will linger in the memory long after the credits have rolled.