Though Hollywood has produced an extensive range of gangster films, few are able to explore the humanity of the gangsters themselves and surpass the violent nature of the genre. “Dayveon,” a coming-of-age self-described gangster drama written, edited, produced, composed and directed by debut filmmaker Amman Abbasi, attempts to be that type of film.
The film follows the life of the titular 13 year old (Devin Blackmon) who spends his summer with a gang after his older brother dies. Despite the efforts of his sister’s boyfriend, Bryan (Dontrell Bright), Dayveon gets increasingly settled into the brutal way of life.
The Wrightsville, Arkansas setting provided Abbasi with plenty of history from which to draw inspiration while crafting “Dayveon.” Wrightsville has been home to the Wrightsville Unit of the Arkansas Department of Correction since 1981. Abbasi acquired access to boot camps for troubled youths in his research, and cast members were exposed to gang membership. Abbasi avoided cheap, emotional tricks and took a nuanced, documentary-like approach to the story of a child coping with the death of his brother.
“Dayveon” is not a gory film — Abbasi peers into Dayveon’s gentleness and his struggles with grief through escape or resorting to familiarity. Dayveon seeks to join a gang because he believes it is the life his brother liked to live, but this fails to provide him with closure. The emotional stings he experiences by maintaining this lifestyle are embodied several times as he attempts to throw away his emotions, and this is illustrated in the film by the swarm of bees near his house. This motif repeats itself throughout the film.
The problem at the core of the film’s composition is that everyone around Dayveon is bland and uninteresting, weakening the overall film. Abassi could have strengthened the arc for Dayveon himself if he had fleshed out the supporting characters. Any scenes devoted to building up the gangsters’ lives or Dayveon’s family end up feeling unnecessary instead of essential, especially due to the film’s mediocre dialogue.
None of the actors have previous acting experience, but all handled the material well. Blackmon in particular delivered a breakthrough performance and was a standout among the other performers. Bright was also memorable, but aside from those two, the other gangsters and Dayveon’s sister, Kim (Chastity Moore), were forgettable.
In the gangster genre, brotherhood is a theme that often dominates the plot, and “Dayveon” is no exception. However, it would have been interesting for Kim to get involved and subvert Dayveon’s idea of what it means to move on, be tough and mature. She is set up as a maternal figure, but her potential in the story is a missed opportunity for Abbasi.
Despite the average script, Abassi shows a keen eye for directing, and “Dayveon” is an incredibly ambitious project for a first-time filmmaker. Abassi’s storytelling is at times unconventional, but these moments are brief. He utilizes overly stylish techniques to offer childishness to Dayveon’s otherwise violent life. Unfortunately, it feels jarring when combined with the documentary-like realism established earlier.
The penultimate scene offers the most dramatic tension, but the ending seems unfinished. “Dayveon” is a competently-directed movie with several standout performances, but its attempts at unconventionality are not earned due to a mediocre script and supporting characters.
“Dayveon” opens at the Quad Cinema at 34 W. 13th St. on Wednesday, Sept. 13.
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