Amman Abbasi's lush and tender here's-what-life's-like debut Dayveon captures, in scenes of pained beauty, an adolescent wanderlust that Abbasi's camera just seems to be observing — no interaction here feels staged or false, though the film itself is often strikingly composed.
Abbasi studies a 13-year-old boy (newcomer Devin Blackmon) in the confused months after the death of his older brother. Dayveon lives in an African-American community in rural Arkansas, biking down leafy backroads, buying sodas and snacks from the local convenience shop. Early on, in a long and aching sequence, he approaches a scrum of older boys hanging out in a plush green patch of nowhere; after some razzing, they quickly pummel him, strip him of his shirt and drag him away. It's a ritualized hazing, an initiation, and soon Dayveon is invited to participate in some pointless, stupid crimes. It hurts, but now Dayveon belongs. Abbasi suggests how a young man who has found little to connect to in his world can drift toward violence -- and how hard it is for friends and family, observing this, to find ways to intervene. The film's drama becomes a question of genre: Is this a tragedy? Or will we see a tragedy averted? The scenario is familiar, though the milieu is not, and Abbasi and his affectless cast summon the feeling of a languid summer dripping past. The director, who also wrote the script, excels at feeling and place: the bees, the humidity, the sense of being boxed into where you come from, a theme exacerbated by the filmmakers' choice to shoot in the boxy Academy ratio.