Gimme the Loot bills itself as a comedy, and while that’s a shrewd marketing strategy, it’s not entirely accurate. The two main characters are brimming with life and energy, yet they’re victims, too. Over the course of several days, first-time filmmaker Adam Leon finds new ways to put his young heroes through a humiliating ringer. If it weren’t for the remarkable work from the two lead actors, the plot would be a depressing slog. They play would-be graffiti artists who are too scrappy to accept failure, so amid the rapid-fire dialogue, Leon focuses on their relationship instead.
The New York Mets’ Apple is the white whale for those who prefer spray paint over a paint brush. Every time the Mets score a home run, a giant apple appears on the field, so if taggers leave their personal signature there, their reputation will grow through the city. Malcolm (Ty Hickson) and Sofia (Tashiana Washington), who are in their late teens or early twenties, have a plan to paint, or “bomb,” the apple: Malcolm knows a guy who will let them into the stadium for $500. Of course their plan only creates new problems to solve; they’re not rich, but enterprising. Malcolm goes the drug dealer Donnie (Adam Metzger) to see if he can run some deliveries, while Sofia goes to collect a debt (she’s given high-end sneakers instead of money). Neither one is too successful on their own, so the plan converges around Ginnie (Zoë Lescaze), a rich girl who lives downtown. Complications get in the way, and Malcolm’s innate horniness is chief among them.
Every character relies on an underground economy in Gimme the Loot, to one extent or another, and Leon uses little details to build a plausible atmosphere. In an early scene, Malcolm and Sofia are walking toward the subway, bike in tow, and when they reach the turnstiles, Malcolm effortlessly jumps over them and opens the magnetic door on the other side. Poor kids in New York must do this all the time, yet it’s indicative of what the characters expect from their city. They’re not above theft — Malcolm is brazen enough to steal from a drug dealer — so they can roll with the punches more easily. Ginnie presents a more complicated problem: in terms of race and class, her New York is completely different from Malcolm’s. In a lovely scene, they get high and teach each other new slang. But when Malcolm returns to her apartment, the tenderness is gone and Ginnie flippantly demeans him. No wonder he and Sofia turn to graffiti: it’s the only way they can tell the world they have a name, and that they matter.
Gimme the Loot’s nonchalant style is well-suited to the material. No shot is out of place, and there are no cinematic flourishes to speak of. Leon follows in the tradition of Cassavetes and Robert Altman: people interest him more than showing off, so his direction is always in service to his actors. Hickson and Washington may be relatively unknowns, but their performances are forceful and affecting. As Malcolm, Hickson is the goofier one. His mouth is always moving, as if he can talk his way into what he wants, and he wears his heart on his sleeve. Leon follows him a little more than Sofia, and his streetwise optimism serves as the movie’s heart.
Sofia also has a lot of dialogue, but since she’s the brains to Malcolm’s heart, she ends up talking more smack. A throwaway line suggests that a rival crew has a beef with her and Malcolm because of her gender, and in a disturbing scene, the crew physically assaults her. Washington downplays Sofia’s victimhood, instead going for a tough character that has no trouble speaking her mind. Another memorable character is Champion, a co-conspirator to Malcolm and Sofia. The actor who plays him is named Meeko, and with all the lived-in tattoos on his face and body, he adds genuine credibility to the world Leon is portraying. Meeko has some of the funniest lines in the movie — he has choice words for the lock on Ginnie’s door — and I can only imagine the level of comfort Leon achieved in order to make his work look so effortless.
The real story of Gimme the Loot does not begin on the quest for the Apple. It happens much later, when Sofia sees Ginnie for the first time. Until that point, Leon develops an unhurried romance between his leads. The subsequent dialogue is careful and delicate, or as delicate as it can be for a movie with non-stop f-bombs. There are no big declarations, and instead Leon gives clues through little moments, whether they’re gruff or tender. Throughout Gimme the Loot, Leon uses a soundtrack of Motown, soul, and disco. The music gives his film a feeling of lightness, even when the characters are robbed blind. So when the journey of Malcolm and Sofia draws to an end and they’re somewhere between friendship and love, it’s easy to see how they got there.