Film Review: Gimme the Loot

An impressive debut feature, Gimme the Loot is also an unusual take on characters who want to leave their stamp on "the city that never sleeps."

Gimme the Loot is about two New York City teenagers trying to make a name for themselves by painting the apple. Sofia (Tashiana Washington) and Malcolm (Ty Hickson) are “bombers,” graffiti artists who use lettering in their work. They have a plan for spray-painting their monikers across the New York Mets’ fiberglass apple, which pops up each time a player hits a home run. Originally a ploy to get fans to the ballpark in the 1980s, the gaudy apple has since become a symbol of the team. If Sofia and Malcolm “bomb” it, hundreds of thousands of people will see their graffiti signatures. Adam Leon’s hip, bittersweet twist on a timeworn storyline was shot on location in Manhattan, and is the writer-director’s entertaining debut feature.

Unlike recent narrative films such as James Bolton’s I Am a Graffiti Artist (2004), or documentaries like Jon Reiss’ Bomb It (2007), this movie steers away from the controversial aspects of the illegal art form, although the relatively small slice of the Big Apple that Sofia and Malcolm reach for is significant. These are not young people missed at home if they stay out late. Malcolm’s mom calls his cell-phone several times a day, but his annoyance signals that she does not do so often. Sofia, on the other hand, seems not to have a home life at all. Leon’s characterization of her as the brains of the partnership is compelling, yet she remains somewhat enigmatic. What is never in doubt is that Sofia’s girlhood was less than idyllic.

For New Yorkers, graffiti mostly evokes 1970s-era crime waves and social unrest, yet in Gimme the Loot, Leon reprises memories of graffiti’s use as a political statement. He also points out that social conditions in the city remain unchanged for young people of color like Sofia and Malcolm. The pair steal the spray paint they use to create their graffiti, they jump subway turnstiles, and plan a robbery to raise the bribe money required to gain entry to the ballpark. Malcolm even makes drug deliveries to pick up cash. In any other film, Sofia and Malcolm would be gang members, yet Leon frames them as vulnerable teenagers, adrift in a city where the only proof of their existence is what they paint on a wall. In fact, Malcolm’s moniker is “Shakes,” street talk for a luckless soul.

Gimme the Loot is a slice of life, so there is little in the way of a narrative arc, and Leon sometimes makes matters worse by dragging out scenes to the point of tedium. Malcolm’s encounter with Jenny, a young drug user, is one example. While the screenplay is flawed, Leon’s direction is not; the movie is skillfully filmed, edited and scored. An eclectic assortment of original music, gospel and hip-hop is never intrusive, and Leon’s knack for visual metaphors to express the plight of his characters is sometimes extraordinary. For instance, in a shot at the end of the film, the very subdued protagonists are on the platform of an elevated subway line, the train the only moving element in the frame. It is a striking tableau of stagnation, the unforgiving cityscape as backdrop.

In every New York story about wanting to “be part of it,” a star is born, and in Gimme the Loot it is Tashiana Washington. While Ty Hickson is charming as Malcolm, a boy on the verge of manhood, Washington is riveting. In her performance, she brings great authenticity to Sofia, a girl mature beyond her years, yet one who still blushes when a guy flirts openly with her. Such integrity in this case has apparently been mistaken for typecasting in some circles. At the Deauville Film Festival, the beautiful former runway model felt compelled to explain that, unlike her character, she really does have to call home if she stays out late.