The following review was originally published as part of our coverage of the 2017 Sundance Film Festival.
Dayveon begins with the titular 13-year-old (Devin Blackmon) declaring the abject stupidity of everything in his world in narration. The bike he’s riding, the trees around him, the people he knows and the roads he travels. All of it is stupid, and for a young man, it makes sense. Dayveon (or “Day-Day,” as he’s better known) lives in a claustrophobic world, framed in the recently re-popularized 4:3 ratio. The houses are small, the rooms are compact, the roads are tight. And the world is getting smaller by the day, especially once he’s initiated into the local chapter of the Bloods in his small Arkansas town with a gang beating, and dragged to his feet before being informed that what he’s just experienced is gentle in the grander scheme of things.
“You in this shit now. Ain’t no turning back.” This ethos is true of the Bloods, but it’s every bit as true of the kind of young manhood illustrated throughout Amman Abbasi’s striking debut feature. To a point, Dayveon follows a familiar trajectory: a young man, seduced by the kinship and respect associated with gang life, seeks to find something more. But for Dayveon, who lost his older brother and only gets to remember him by way of the Facebook photos he keeps close and the airbrushed memorial portrait in his house, it’s about more than that. Gang life offers catharsis, and besides, it’s not like there’s much else going on in his one-horse town. His sister’s boyfriend Bryan (Dontrell Bright) tries to explain how being “jumped in” isn’t the glorious transition Dayveon sees, but to little avail.
The nebulous optimism of “something more” hangs heavy over Dayveon, albeit in small ways. His sister Kim (Chasity Moore) hopes for a job at a nursing home that could improve their situation a little bit. Dayveon and his friend Brayden (Kordell Johnson) wander their town in the daytime, attaching pliers to the back of Dayveon’s bike to serve as pegs, the two able to let their respective guards down enough to actually act like young teenagers for a moment or two at a time. One of his fellow gang members hovers around a farmer, hoping for more gainful employment. In small strokes, Abbasi builds a stifling ecosystem of half-hearted dreams and bleak realities, through jovial sessions of Madden and nighttime car rides into near-total darkness, through stoned conversations about the struggles of existence and a tree covered in malignant bees.
Dayveon’s muted, largely allusive storytelling takes a backseat to tone and place throughout, and Abbasi demonstrates an assured command of both. The rural imagery avoids the small-town fetishization that so often finds its way into films of this nature, instead offering quiet instances of humanity even as Dayveon begins to veer closer and closer to true danger. That danger largely manifests itself in the form of Mook (Lachion Buckingham), the gang leader, who sees the kind of malleable kid who can be taught to do just about anything. Even still, Mook is likewise beholden to the cruelties of their impoverished life; after the two stick up a dice game, Mook tells Dayveon that “You gotta be a man. I had to do it too.” But when the local definition of manhood involves getting Dayveon drunk at a seedy nightclub and bringing him along as an accomplice for liquor store stickups, the future Mook chases is less a future than a series of short-term survival rituals.
Wisely, Abbasi avoids easy notes of anguish or hope throughout, instead settling on a moving atmosphere of simple times and “putting in work” as the natural states of being in the film’s world. That balance largely relies on Blackmon, who’s onscreen for the dominant majority of the film’s runtime, and handles that burden capably. The film’s photography is intimate in general, sometimes uncomfortably so, and Blackmon makes for a fine center. In one particularly striking instance during the aforementioned club sequence, Blackmon is framed in closeup, the strobe lights playing off his drunken face as the music blares around him and the women twerk for his ostensible pleasure. But there’s no joy in the gang life he’s chosen to entertain, so much as a direction to push in when none previously existed. The smash cut to him vomiting hideous-colored liquor only reiterates this point.
Dayveon is a simple film, but one with a notable depth of emotion. The largely improvised performances contribute heavily to this, as does Abbasi’s confident, mostly static direction; it’s telling that one sequence, in which Dayveon and Brayden wander through the woods in a fugue of VHS-tinged aesthetics, feels inappropriately showy given the ground-level approach of the rest of the film. Dayveon is at its best when it concentrates on the power of community, in all its forms. When Bryan steals away to get drunk and gamble with his friends, or the local Bloods pass their days getting high and discussing nothing in particular, the film lingers on the beauty (and possible tragedy) of kinship in even the most unassuming places. And at its end, for the menace that continues to exist just beyond the margins, it’s possible that maybe everyone will just get to go about their day without incident. It’s a film of quiet merits.