At once feeling sweaty as all good caper films should without ever allowing you to see it sweat, Adam Leon’s energetic sophomore feature “Tramps” concerns Ellie (Grace Van Patten) and Danny (Callum Turner), a pair of teens who have finished school but unlikely to go to college, the former hailing from Pittsburgh working small cons to get by while the latter is lured into a scheme along with her to retrieve a briefcase by his brother Darren (Michal Vondel), unable to do it himself after being arrested. The two don’t even know each other’s names when they’re set to pick up the briefcase at the Astoria Boulevard subway stop, let alone other details about what they’re doing – only that there’s $1,500 in it for each of them, if they deliver it uptown by the end of the day – so it comes as little surprise when Danny inadvertently absconds with the wrong satchel, with a bottle of prescription pills with a name and address the only clue they have to put things back on the right track.
There’s no small irony in the fact that as the characters’ plan goes awry, Leon effortlessly pulls off his, making every detail of the story pay off in ways both big and small and with cinematographer Ashley Connor, executing shot after shot that speak to the emotions of the characters (while, likely – and fearlessly – evading authorities in such spots as Port Authority and Grand Central Station). A look at the logline to “Tramps” might suggest that Leon has remade his first feature, “Gimme the Loot,” to some degree, again tracking a couple of kids from the Bronx who made it their mission over the course of a day to leave their mark on the Big Apple, quite literally as rival graffiti crews vie to spray paint the pinnacle of Citi Field and as in “Loot,” whatever crime the Bonnie and Clyde of “Tramps” may be accused of is far less significant than the con that’s been perpetrated on them well before they entered the world themselves.
If “Tramps” feels like a grander production than “Loot” – eventually heading out of Manhattan to Briarcliff where Ellie and Danny’s suitcase has gone – its themes are deeper to match, with Leon’s ongoing interest in New York as a place where the American Dream is still alive for the scrappiest and most street savvy particularly resonant when presenting class division so vividly. With great care, the film illustrates how Ellie and Danny have both born into the end of the economic spectrum with little opportunity for upward mobility, and it’s telling when the millennials find their way into the suburban home of their suitcase carrier, they become enamored of the place, stopping to shave, in Danny’s case, or trying on dresses, in Ellie’s, only to be reminded when coming across a lizard like one Danny had when he was young that this life doesn’t and will likely never belong to them. After Ellie asks why parents give children pets so young since they die, Danny suggests, with personal experience dripping from his tongue, “Maybe to let them be sad about something small before bad things really happen.”
That Leon manages to sneak these ideas into such a sturdy, constantly diverting piece of entertainment is some impressive sleight of hand in itself, and like a true hustler, he keeps things moving at a steady clip, realizing what makes “Tramps” so vibrant is just how much is going on in any given moment. He’s gifted at working with young actors – Van Patten and Turner are instantly endearing, to an audience at least, if not necessarily each other at first – and the attention to detail, whether in the music choices (which encompasses everything from country to soul-funk), the locations or the cultural specificity attached to everything that enters the frame, infuses the film with an environmental familiarity pleasingly undone by the unpredictability of life. In going back to a similar scenario as his first film, Leon risked repeating himself, but with “Tramps,” he’s achieved something too unique to call a copy of any kind. As his protagonists Ellie and Danny learn as well, sometimes the most interesting stuff happens right in front of you and you’ve just got to capture it while it’s there.
“Tramps” does not yet have U.S. distribution. It will play twice more at the Toronto Film Festival on September 12 at 12:45 pm at the TIFF Bell Lightbox 1 and September 16th at 7:30 pm at the Isabel Bader Theatre.