Calling Deidra & Laney Rob a Train “cute” might be a bit reductive, but what’s a person supposed to do when confronted with a movie this charming and this damn earnest? Deidra & Laney Rob a Train is a heart-melter. The film, like its two title characters, like its handful of supporting characters, and like its director, has spunk, personality, a spark of vitality keeping its narrative humming from start to finish: It’s the kind of movie you might think to watch just for the fun of it, for the sake of quick, low-investment amusement absent of heavy lifting. You’ll tune in just to tune out.
But if you queue up Deidra & Laney Rob a Train under the assumption that it’s just fluff, you’ll be surprised to be proven wrong within its first ten minutes. No doubt filmmaker Sydney Freeland and screenwriter Shelby Farrell want their audience to have a good time watching their movie, of course. It’s a buoyant, cleverly crafted delight that’s peppered with great performances, but it takes its material as seriously as it needs to at the precise times when it needs to, as well. There’s a certain level of amorality here, as you might expect from a film about locomotive larceny, but submerged beneath the murky ethics of theft are currents of empathy: Freeland has constructed a judgment-free zone for telling the tale of sisters Deidra (Ashley Murray) and Laney Tanner (Rachel Crow), inspired toward criminal enterprise all in the name of family.
It’s a caper, alright, but a caper that refuses to make light of the premise-shaping predicaments that shape its premise, a feat Freeland pulls off with casual brio. There’s a marvelous ease to the film’s pace, unhurried but with a real sense of purpose. Deidra & Laney Rob a Train is a picture with places to go, people to see, and events to unfold within its slim, sub-90 minute run time. Deidra is a genius-level high school student on the verge of taking the Ivy League world by storm, and Laney, Deidra’s younger, less accomplished sibling, is struggling with school and life at home. The sisters are as much caretaker to their little brother, Jet (Lance Gray), as their mother, Goldie (Danielle Nicolet), that is until Goldie snaps at her day job working retail for a Best Buy proxy and ends up in prison. Suddenly, adult concerns become Deidra’s and Laney’s.
But Deidra’s on the case! After a talk with her ex-con, current railroad engineer father, Chet (David Sullivan), she gets the absolutely brilliant idea to snatch goods off the back of the train that periodically rumbles by behind her house. It’s a victimless crime: Deidra and Laney get the stuff, whatever stuff they can get their hands on, and they fence it through Jerry (Myko Olivier), Deidra’s ex-crush, using the cash to pay the bills while saving up enough to spring Goldie from jail. The scheme works, too, until a railroad cop, Truman (Tim Blake Nelson), comes to town looking for the train thieves. Everything goes sideways from there as Deidra’s best-laid plans circle back around to bite her on the ass. You think it’s tough to be a top-of-your-class student in a nothing town where nobody cares about education? Try doing all that while operating a train robbery ring. It ain’t easy. (Then also, try doing all that as a person of color.)
There’s a lot about Deidra & Laney Rob a Train that works and very little that doesn’t, which makes identifying the core of its success more than a little tricky. As problems go in the world of film reviewing, mind you, this is a pretty nice problem to have: One can cite Freeland’s energetic directing style as the key factor in Deidra & Laney Rob a Train’s greatness, for example, and one wouldn’t be wrong. The movie has drawn more than a couple comparisons to Thelma and Louise, but Freeland’s creative approach better echoes that of Edgar Wright, a guy who infuses his pictures with accelerating inertia. Wright joints are propulsive experiences. So too is Deidra & Laney Rob a Train, which, in the fashion of a train, begins building up a full head of steam from the moment it starts, rushing forth with sprightly but tender urgency.
But as good as Freeland is on one side of the camera, Murray and Crow are even better on the other. In an alternate scenario, all of Freeland’s efforts are wasted by a pair of dull, untalented leads who can’t keep up with her lively filmmaking chops, but Murray and Crow enhance their director’s vision with spirit of their own. By design, Murray is the standout: Deidra is the visible Tanner sister, smart, determined, capable, a young lady who stubbornly rejects adult attempts at dismissing her on the basis of her age, while Laney is quieter, shier, more easily trod upon by others (occasionally literally, too). But that doesn’t reduce Crow’s performance. In fact, it’s what makes her performance so darn good alongside Murray’s. Freeland knows how to keep tone in balance, but it takes Murray and Crow flipping back and forth from teens, to sisters, to outlaws to make that balancing act worthwhile, and they do so effortlessly. (Also worth noting is the supporting troupe, especially Nicolet, Sullivan, and Sasheer Zamata, who plays the girls’ rankled school guidance counselor.)
All told, Deidra & Laney Rob a Train is an excellent example of how aesthetics and acting can and should complement one another, but it’s also intelligent, funny, and never less than aware of the social disparities it invokes through its storytelling. You get the feeling that there are lots of Deidras and Laneys out there who are constantly denied the chance to escape their circumstances, whether in backwater America or elsewhere, by the very institutions that are supposed to help them achieve. Deidra & Laney Rob a Train manages to address these ideas, without focusing on them. They remain in the background for the whole of the film, self-reinforced by the flow of Freeland’s plotting. This is appropriate for the sort of picture that Deidra & Laney Rob a Train wants to be: It’s a romp, but a romp of substance and heart.
Director: Sydney Freeland
Writer: Shelby Farrell
Starring: Ashleigh Murray, Rachel Crow, Tim Blake Nelson, David Sullivan, Sasheer Zamata, Danielle Nicolet
Release Date: March 17, 2017 (Netflix)
Boston-based critic Andy Crump has been writing about film and television online since 2009, and has been contributing to Paste Magazine since 2013. He writes additional words for Movie Mezzanine, The Playlist, and Birth. Movies. Death., and is a member of the Online Film Critics Society and the Boston Online Film Critics Association. You can follow him on Twitter and find his collected writing at his personal blog. He is composed of roughly 65% craft beer.