For a guy who trades in intimate, small-scale narratives, Adam Leon sure does love working with distance. Wide shots pepper his films, his camera an eye in the heavens tracking the movements of his protagonists through busy open spaces. Leon never lets these characters out of his, or our, sights, and he never lets the words they exchange with one another drown in the noisome urban bustle they wade through from scene to scene. Both feats are impressive on their own merit, but more impressive than that is Leon’s knack for making us feel like we’re right there in the frame with his actors, no matter how great the gap separating them from his lens. He can hover over an active street corner teeming with hubbub and still keep us focused on a pair of arguing teens.
You don’t pull off that kind of stunt without caring, or without making your viewers care, and so we get down to what makes Leon special as a storyteller: He’s caring. He’s compassionate. Hell, he’s downright generous, a director who makes movies as gifts to his admirers and who gives gift after gift to his principals in the form of lucky breaks. Maybe, if you’re so inclined, you’d call that contrivance. Maybe you’d accuse Leon of making easy movies, of wrapping up his work with tidy little bows, instead of challenging himself, his leads, his audience. But as with his buoyant debut, 2013’s Gimme the Loot, his latest movie, the Netflix-backed Tramps, is all about the tug between kindness and unkindness: Leon doesn’t pile ignominies on his characters more than he must because the world he constructs around them does that well enough on its own.
Tramps has much in common with Gimme the Loot besides technique, scope, form and basic details like, for instance, empathy; it’s a love story-cum-fairytale set in New York City, it takes place during the summer, and it’s about people living in the margins of society. (In point of fact, the most immediately noteworthy difference is representation. More on that later.) The most profound similarity is its dual-thread approach to plotting, introducing Danny (Callum Turner) first, Ellie (Grace Van Patten) second, and setting them on a collision course with each other third. They’re both involved in the same small time crime scheme, involving the swapping of a suitcase. Danny is cajoled into the caper by his imprisoned brother, Darren (Michal Vondel), while Ellie is in turn persuaded by Scott (Mike Birbiglia) to play getaway driver for a cash payout she desperately needs. She’s a cool-headed pro. Danny’s a sweet-natured, reluctant lunkhead.
Naturally, the whole plan goes busto when Danny grabs the wrong suitcase. (The right suitcase, for what it’s worth, is held by one Tashiana Washington, one of Leon’s Gimme the Loot co-stars alongside Ty Hickson, who appears here in brief as well. Whether at Leon’s behest or at the suggestion of his producers, Tramps is whitewashed, perhaps in an attempt to make it more “accessible” and thus attract more eyes for viewing. It doesn’t stop the film from being a total delight, but it is rankling in the abstract.) So Ellie and Danny spend a couple days together, trying to find Tramps’ plot-driving MacGuffin, and wouldn’t you know it, the kids bond and grow close in the process.
Trite and treacly stuff in theory, but Leon is skilled in refining sugary goodness and balancing it out with human ballast. Tramps implies gravity, suggesting that Very Bad Things™ may befall our lovebirds should they fumble in their recovery of the original case, but it keeps that harshness at its edges and instead makes a budding romance shared by two lost, lonely souls caught in the same orbit of its dramatic engine. There are other dangers besides the consequences of failure: Rich suburban assholes threatening to call the cops, a handful of break-ins and petty crimes and an air of distrust in which Ellie isn’t sure if it’s safe for her to put her confidence in Danny, and vice versa. If anything, the film’s conflict stems from that uncertainty, from the fear that maybe the person you’ve been forced to rely on can’t actually be relied on at all, and at the same time its heart stems from Turner and Van Patten’s performances. Their chemistry is wholly intoxicating: Turner’s aw-shucks affability compliments Van Patten’s cagey steel nicely, giving them room for transformation as her guard falls to Danny’s earnest and winsome personality.
That’s how you give tried and true material, a’la “young love,” weight. Great filmmaking helps, too, and only two features into his career, Leon already looks like an emerging great filmmaker, a humane, insightful artist who knows how to unpack riches from microscopic premises without being dry or pedantic. Cynicism is a common disposition for the generational crop of filmmakers Leon belongs to, and it’s refreshing—invigorating even—to watch skilled directors reject acrimony and jaded pretension for bona fide, unabashed sincerity. Tramps is a minor effort loaded with small pleasures, but tallied together, those small pleasures add up to one great movie.
Director: Adam Leon
Writer: Adam Leon
Starring: Callum Turner, Grace Van Patten, Michal Vondel, Mike Birbiglia, Rachel Zeiger-Haag, Margaret Colin, Louis Cancelmi
Release Date: April 21, 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 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.