Gimme the Loot

You don’t have to be an old prude to be a little turned off by the description of “Gimme the Loot.” It’s about teenage graffiti artists (which is to say, vandals) who smoke and sell weed, commit numerous petty thefts, attempt a burglary, and swear like sailors. They’re the type of kids you’d at least disapprove of if you saw them on the street, and possibly actively avoid.

And yet pound for pound, “Gimme the Loot” is every bit as charming and joyful as it is profane, affectionately portraying a slice of life that feels both exotic and recognizable. Working on a shoestring budget, first-time writer-director Adam Leon — a native New Yorker in his old stomping grounds — achieves a kind of authenticity that you almost never find in studio productions, only in tiny indie productions like this one.

In the Bronx live two self-possessed kids in their late teens, Malcolm (Ty Hickson) and Sofia (Tashiana Washington), platonic friends with working partnership. They are “taggers,” and they’re part of the underground subculture that uses elaborate graffiti as a calling card, a way of marking one’s territory. This isn’t Banksy stuff, where the graffiti is viewed as social commentary. Malcolm and Sofia and their like-minded friends do it purely for bragging rights, like gangs (only without most of the other activities associated with gangs).

For these two, the ultimate achievement would be to sneak into Citi Field, where the Mets play, and deface the giant apple that pops up when someone hits a home run. Their work would be seen by thousands, and it would be a brazen poke in the eye to their Queens rivals, mocking them on their own turf. (The rivalries in this world appear to be borough-based.) An opportunity arises to do exactly this, but it will require bribing a maintenance worker to let them into the park in the wee hours of the morning.

“Gimme the Loot” then becomes a story about a quest: Malcolm and Sofia have two days to come up with $500. Their plan is to commit whatever small-scale crimes they can, like selling shoplifted spray paint, call in outstanding debts, and get whatever’s available through Malcolm’s “day job” of selling marijuana for a low-level distributor. While making a delivery to a privileged, rebellious white girl named Ginnie (Zoe Lescaze), Malcolm thinks he may have found a potential girlfriend as well as an apartment with stuff to steal.

How is this all so charming and funny instead of sleazy? For one thing, Leon made the inspired decision to fill the soundtrack not with rap (as you’d expect for a film about urban hustlers) but with old soul and gospel tunes — peppy, light music that casts a sunshiny glow over the whole affair. Few scenes are set indoors; most of the movie is out on the streets of New York, basking in the energy and freedom of being young in the city.

Moreover, while Sofia and Malcolm are criminals, they aren’t violent or mean. They get ripped off plenty by other players in this dog-eat-dog world. They don’t openly discuss it, but Malcolm’s encounters with Ginnie are a reminder that a great socio-economic gulf separates them from the “respectable” world. This is simply what their lives are like.

Malcolm and Sofia, both played with appealing gusto by actors with very little professional experience, are full of confidence and swagger. They razz each other the way friends do, and bluster at enemies like kids who have seen too many gangster movies. They fight, they curse, they scheme, they chit-chat, and they laugh. They’re not angry, disaffected youths. They’re happy. The film provides an upbeat, almost jubilant glimpse into a world most of us have little connection to, and it’s a lot of fun to visit.

B+ (1 hr., 19 min.; Not Rated, probably R for pervasive harsh profanity, brief sexual dialogue.)

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