With its loose, freewheeling style, the unassuming "Gimme the Loot" has already led something of a charmed life. The film picked up the grand jury prize when it premiered at the South by Southwest film festival last year, going on to play the prestigious New Directors/New Films series in New York and be an official selection at the Cannes Film Festival. It was then nominated for two Spirit Awards, earning writer-director Adam Leon the "Someone to Watch" award.
To go from sleeping on couches at South by Southwest to donning tuxedos in the south of France in a few short months is not bad for the team behind a film about two Bronx teenagers set over two summer days and made for about $165,000.
"For what this movie is, I think we hit the jackpot," said Leon over a recent lunch on the sun-dappled patio of a West Hollywood hotel. "Once on set I made a joke, like 'Well, in Cannes they'll love it,' and we never thought that was going to actually happen."
Opening March 29 in Los Angeles, when it also becomes available on video-on-demand, "Loot" is set in modern day but with something of a timeless, throwback feel as the story follows Malcolm (Ty Hickson) and Sofia (Tashiana Robinson), platonic friends and aspiring graffiti writers. As revenge against a rival team, they hatch a plan to "Bomb the Apple," to spray-paint a key part of the Mets' baseball stadium. But they need $500 to make it happen, sending them on a young hustlers' odyssey through the city, from sidewalks to rooftops and points in between.
[For the record, 12:35 p.m. March 23: This article incorrectly identifies Tashiana Washington as Tashiana Robinson.]
Leon, 31, grew up in New York's Greenwich Village, where he still lives, and attended the University of Pennsylvania but didn't go on to film school. Instead he started working as a production assistant, including jobs on two Woody Allen films (his stepmother is Allen's longtime publicist), before landing a series of film festival positions. He eventually co-directed a faux-documentary short, "Killer," before stepping up to make his feature debut with "Loot."
"He's sort of the quintessential really smart, really talented first-time filmmaker that you hope to discover," said Jonathan Sehring, president of Sundance Selects and IFC Films, which is distributing the film.
Though the bones of his story could make for a gritty tale of life on the streets, there is something almost innocent about the world of Malcolm and Sofia even as they bounce among drug deals and other assorted low-level criminal activity. As Leon put it, he wanted the film to feel more like "Dazed and Confused" than "Precious" or "Kids."
"I had this idea I really wanted to make a movie set in this world with these characters who had these tough backgrounds, tough lives, live in these gritty neighborhoods but aren't necessarily miserable people," he said. "It's the difference between being authentic and being real."
Shooting in 21 days, Leon specifically planned everything with the production's limited means in mind. Much of the story takes place during daytime exterior scenes, requiring minimal to no lighting and often allowing the small crew to skirt the need for permits. "I would say most of it is legal," he noted.
"What they lacked in funds they more than made up for in charm and family-ness," said Lindsay Burdge, casting director and associate producer on "Gimme," who has been making waves of her own as an actress on this year's festival circuit with her title role in "A Teacher." "I think that attitude was really infectious."
Last year saw another indie breakout festival hit that was made by a white filmmaker but set very much in an African American world. As "Beasts of the Southern Wild" went from winning prizes at Sundance to earning multiple Oscar nominations, the film faced questions regarding the politics of its representation. As "Loot" has made its way around the festival circuit, Leon has faced the occasional question himself as to whether this was a story he should even be telling.
"You don't go into this blind," he said. "The fact the characters are African American is very intrinsic to who they are as people, and that's a part of the movie. But it's not really a movie of racial identity. It's a New York story where the lead characters are African American.
"Why not tell that story? If the only reason is because the director is Caucasian, that doesn't feel like a good enough reason if we could do justice to these characters. I'm not a graffiti writer either. And Martin Scorsese didn't live in 'The Age of Innocence.' You just have to approach a story with integrity."
Leon had remained friends with Hickson since casting him in "Killer," writing the lead in "Loot" with the actor in mind. Finding the counterpart to Hickson's Malcolm proved more difficult. "She kind of came in out of the blue," said Burdge of finding Robinson, an actress, singer and dancer. "She came in disguise, basically, as the character and just nailed it from the start."
Though the film was tightly scripted, the chemistry between Hickson and Robinson gives it an improvisational spark, leading many audiences to believe the pair simply are a couple of street kids. In promoting the film, they have surprised audiences not only with their easy charm but also their idiosyncratic personal styles: Hickson's penchant for the prep-school cool of bow ties and Robinson's bombshell figure and forward-looking fashion are a long way from the baggy T-shirts they wear in the movie.
"I think it's a compliment to the movie but not a big compliment to them when people think I just found these kids," said Leon. "They are incredibly talented actors. They are not those kids."
The word that seems to pop up most frequently regarding "Gimme the Loot" is "fresh." "To me it was all new. It had to be fresh because it was fresh for all of us," said Hickson. "'Oh, this is what we're doing today?' 'Oh, we can't really be in here? OK.' Everybody was adventurous."