Eric D. Snider

Lift

Co-directed by DeMane Davis and Khari Streeter, "Lift" is a gritty family drama based on the creators' own experiences as professional shoplifters.

Niecy (Kerry Washington, recently the best reason to see "Save the Last Dance") is a young African-American Bostonian who works at an upscale department store by day, shoplifts designer clothing by night. She uses stolen checks and credit cards when necessary, but is also adept at just takin' the stuff. (It's hard not to be impressed with her skills, especially when Davis and Streeter film them so artfully, almost poetically.)

She sells the clothes at a significant discount -- but still a tremendous profit, obviously -- to her friends and family, making her the cock of the walk in all her social circles. These are people who, we're told, used to have balloons and streamers at birthday parties instead of presents, but who look good no matter how poverty-stricken they are.

Niecy is newly pregnant by her boyfriend, a former "booster" named Angelo (Eugene Byrd) who is trying to get her out of the business. ("Why don't you drink rum and smoke crack, too?" he snaps at her.) Angelo's former employer, meanwhile, the reptilian Christian (Todd Williams), is trying to get Niecy to join his crew. She prefers to work alone, though, except when it comes to one special job: Obsessed with pleasing her emotionally detached mother (Lonette McKee), Niecy wants to lift an expensive necklace. She'll need some help from Christian's guys, but no price is too great to pay to win her mother's affection.

While the idea of organized shoplifting is probably foreign to most viewers, the situations and emotions here are as familiar as anything. Niecy is horrified to realize that dressing nicely has become the end-all and be-all of her existence; this point is driven home in a gripping funeral sequence in which all the mourners nightmarishly turn into runway models, and she can't seem to keep her eyes on the dearly departed.

Washington's performance is bold, as is a surprisingly powerful Barbara Montgomery as Niecy's grandmother (who also lived through the circumstances that made Niecy's mother so distant). DeMane and Streeter use hand-held cameras during some of the more dramatic sequences, to add immediacy to the family issues at hand. The movie is about shoplifting, but it's more about familial relationships. Gloriously, it's one of the better films on either subject to come along in a while.

Grade: A-

Rated R, abundant harsh profanity, some violence, some sexual dialogue

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