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Unique love-drama-thriller ‘Sleight’ has surprises up its sleeve

Jacob Latimore in "Sleight." | BH TILT

In a film about a magician, the most impressive trick in “Sleight” is how director and co-writer J.D. Dillard is able to spin such a memorable and unique tale on a micro-budget.

Like “Moonlight” and “Get Out,” this is a non-traditional, multi-genre film with impressive cinematography, a smart screenplay with some creative twists — and brilliant performances from the lead players.

Jacob Lattimore gives a star-making performance as Bo, who has been thrust into the role of caregiver for his little sister Tina (the adorable Storm Reid) after both their parents die. (A scene in which Tina almost sets their apartment on fire early one morning while trying to surprise Bo with breakfast perfectly establishes the loving dynamic between the two.)

Lattimore is playing a deeply flawed character who does some monstrous things but clearly possesses a great deal of humanity as well, and he elicits our empathy with his natural, likable onscreen persona. Bo can be arrogant to the point of recklessness, but he’s also capable of sweet compassion and selfless actions when circumstances require. It’s an impressively layered piece of acting — one of the best performances of the year.

Bo is a talented street magician with an uncanny ability to pick pockets and levitate objects, but the crumpled dollar bills and spare change dropped in his hat aren’t nearly enough for him support Tina.

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In fact, Bo’s primary source of cash comes from a much darker profession: selling drugs under the umbrella of a Los Angeles kingpin named Angelo (Dule Hill), who has the soul of a psychopath lurking beneath his sophisticated social exterior. Bo’s been doing it for a year — much longer than he had counted on. He thought it would be a way to make some quick cash, but now he’s trapped in the life.

For a brief interlude, Bo’s world actually seems to be moving in the right direction. He dreams about getting out of the drug selling business. He meets a wonderful, intelligent, stunningly beautiful college student named Holly (Seychelle Gabriel), and they fall for each other fast and hard.

We even get some much-needed comedic relief, courtesy of a sequence where a street-dumb white guy tries to buy Molly from Bo and asks a series of questions about how much he should pay, how it works, etc., which concludes with Bo telling the guy, “Don’t buy drugs to impress girls.”

Quickly, though, storm clouds overwhelm Bo’s life. Angelo forces Bo to execute a violent act of retribution on a rival dealer. Bo’s attempts to get out from under Angelo’s rule only serve to plunge him deeper into trouble, to the point where his life is in danger and he might lose Tina. And we learn some heavy, heartbreaking truths about Holly’s life as well.

Director and co-writer Dillard spins a story that’s part domestic drama, part romance, part crime thriller — but as “Sleight” unwinds, we realize it’s also something else.

It’s an origins story of sorts, and I’ll say no more than that.

The veteran character actor Dule Hill gives one of the most memorable performances of his career as the drug dealer Angelo. Seychelle Gabriel demonstrates big-movie, leading-lady star power potential with her winning and quite moving work. Add to that Lattimore’s electric work, and there’s not a scene in “Sleight” that doesn’t jump off the screen.

★★★1⁄2

BH Tilt presents a film directed by J.D. Dillard and written by Dillard and Alex Theurer. Rated R (for language throughout, drug content and some violence). Running time: 90 minutes. Opens Friday at local theaters.