“DAYVEON”— In Arkansas

“DAYVEON”

In Arkansas

Amos Lassen

After his older brother’s death, thirteen-year-old Dayveon (Devon Blackmon) spends his days roaming around his small town Arkansas home. He eventually becomes involved with a local gang that draws him into the camaraderie and violence of their world.

Debut writer/director Amman Abbasi’s tender “coming-of-age film in an environment of violence is special with its vision, regional flavor and overall personality.

Dayveon lives with his older sister, Kim (Chasity Moore) and her boyfriend, Bryan (Dontrell Bright). in Kim has a 3-year-old son to take care of, so without her, Dayveon has no parental figures to look up to other than Bryan. No matter how hard Bryan tries to keep him safe, Dayveon, along with his friend, Brayden (Kordell “KD” Johnson) end up joining a local gang called the Bloods.

The film is a slow-burning, atmospheric drama that takes its time to immerse the viewer in Dayveon’s life. The film follows Dayveon around as he idles away during hot summer days. You feel like you’re watching a documentary because it’s so grounded in realism. When Dayveon joins the gang, suspense gradually increases, but it’s not an edge-of-your-seat kind of suspense as you’re wondering if and when something tragic will befall Dayveon or one of his friends. There is no complicated plot and the film is more concerned about establishing atmosphere. Abbasi includes very little of back-story to Dayveon. All we know is that his parents aren’t around and that Dayveon is still grieving over the death of his brother a few years back. There are no flashbacks or long expository scenes. Abbasi trusts the audience’s intelligence and patience.

Visually, this is a fest for the eyes. Some of the shots look mesmerizing and cinematic and nothing in the film goes over-the-top—not even the natural performances. If you appreciate understatement and humanism, you’ll appreciate “Dayveon” all the more.

The film is built on the idea of imparting sensuality to a region—an almost exclusively black small town in rural Arkansas. Eugene Richards’s medium-format photojournalism in the Arkansas Delta in the late 1960s is often breathtaking—and in no way trivial aestheticism. Abbasi’s careful, patient framing contextualizes the downtrodden lives of his characters. He, however, is not confident enough to let this detailed environment pull its own weight, and ultimately the film leans on overwrought metaphors and contrived plot actions to make sense of itself. Dayveon is an introverted, frustrated orphan who, while grieving from the recent gang-related death of his older brother, finds himself pulled between two distinct guardian figures: his sister’s chummy boyfriend, Brian and an amoral gang leader, Mook (Lachion Buckingham). From the moment that the boy first meditates on his makeshift memorial to his fallen brother while caressing a tender photograph and then an inherited handgun, innocence and corruption are juxtaposed: Afternoons spent playing video games with Brian or biking around with his friend, Brayden move into nights spent apprenticing on the assorted petty crimes of Mook and his Bloods.

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Scattered throughout the film are observations of unforced intimacy that dig into the hard realities of this forsaken swamp town in the Deep South and the difficulties of finding transcendence there.

The local Bloods jump him into their gang early on in the movie, with leader Mook taking him under his wing, showing him and his friend Brayden the how to belong. At the same time, Brian tries to reach out to Dayveon, by even offering to be like a brother, although it might be too late. That scene

in which Brian tries to reach out to a very restless Dayveon is one particular standout moment where dialogue, narrative intention and emotion play out as if the characters knew what needed to be said, but no script was needed. 

“Dayveon” is a movie where characters, not just the title one, are shown in lights we may not have seen otherwise. Bloods members are shown half-passed out, talking to themselves about what the point of all this is; Dayveon and Brayden have a poetic moment learning how to make gang symbols with their hands while sitting by a pond. The movie is full of idyllic passages that strike as human first and foremost, even if Abbasi’s hands can be heavy playing with slow-motion or different film formats. 

“Dayveon” walks a fine line between his own cinematic daydreams and those of his environment, and the film is electrified by mixing the two. It is a poignant reflection on universal ideas—growing up, of vulnerable men, of the fear of innocence being lost. We have heard this story before, but not in the way “Dayveon” presents it here.

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