The sibling director pair of Jonathan and Josh Baker, little known for any of their other projects, made a bit of a stir in 2014 with the short film Bag Man, that depicted an African-American youth discovering, and then using, a futuristic weapon in modern-day America. It was an interesting, if limited, science-fiction tale, one that didn’t have all that much in the way of pretensions of depth. But it was an undeniably neat idea, with a minority lead in an exceptional situation.
But was there enough in Bag Man to turn it into a feature length piece? The Baker Brothers certainly thought so, and so did Shawn Levy and Michael B. Jordan, the primary producers of Kin who fell in love with the short film and obviously saw potential. And between them all they were able to assemble a surprisingly decent cast. OK then, I was game: was Kin a sci-fi classic in the making, or a film trying to make too much of too little?
While scavenging derelict sites for copper wire, 14-year-old Eli (Miles Truitt) discovers a strange gun, not of our time. When his adopted father’s (Dennis Quaid) biological son Jimmy (Jack Reynor) is released from prison, he finds himself in trouble with local crime lord Taylor (James Franco) and must go on the run, dragging Eli, and his weapon, with him. All the while, a duo of mysterious figures are chasing that same device.
Kin is, unfortunately, a bit of a mess. I say “unfortunately” because this is a film that I wish that I could like: it’s got a good cast, many of them minority actors, it’s actually scripted quite well to a point and the world could do with more inventive sci-fi, even if it is of the low budget side. But Kin can’t do much with all of its positive elements, letting itself down at every turn.
The key issue is tone. The main story of Kin – an unlikely sibling road trip/coming-of-age drama – and its stand-out element – the “ray gun” and the people who brought it into our world – go together like oil and water. One could easily exist without the other, indeed the original Bag Man short is essentially just the second part. Concocted to flesh things out is that larger story, and I can honestly say that Kin could just be that story.
Have Eli find a shotgun in an abandoned, and you would be able to recreate 90% of Kin. You wouldn’t have any need for recourse to what comes off as an unwelcome intrusive sci-fi accompaniment. That sci-fi element is not used as a commentary on the modern world, or as an effective crux for the overall narrative: it thus seems rather pointless, and stands in stark contrast to the likes of See You Yesterday, which used its science-fiction make-up as effective political commentary. And there is plenty to commentate on if Kin had the mind, not least the idea of a young black man needing a gun to be noticed by the world. Kin doesn’t really make enough of that, about the ray gun being a device of empowerment as much as it may be for destruction.
And the thing is that the 90% of Kin that has no sci-fi bells and whistles is fine, if maybe a little maudlin and overly-sentimental. Eli is a naive under-experienced teenager who is led astray by an older brother who hasn’t a clue what he is doing with his life. The journey takes them to places where the heart of their characters, be it bravery, cowardice, greed or affection, comes to the fore. Nobody is entirely a hero and nobody is entirely a villain (except for James Franco, naturally). Both Eli and Jimmy are well-rounded individuals, trying to do the best they can with moral compasses that are not entirely attuned in the right ways. Both make mistakes and both are redeemable.
Truitt and Reynor are fine, though I for one find Reynor’s bog-average American accent a bit amusing. They have a decent chemistry, and Truitt does especially well considering his age. At least this is a project of his I actually didn’t have major objections to watching, unlike the racist drek that was Dragged Across Concrete earlier this year. Truitt does a praise-worthy job as a young man on the verge of adulthood facing into the complexity of life, naive enough that his willingness to buy into Jimmy’s falsehoods is not that hard to swallow. Even the best actor would struggle with a script and character arc that is as dead-ended as it is here – Eli’s journey doesn’t so much come to a conclusion, as it does hit a brick wall labelled “Sequel?” – but Truitt does OK.
It’s with other members of the cast that problems start to emerge. Dennis Quaid is only here for the first act, but does what is essentially “gruff Dad”, that an actor of his age and level seems largely relegated to nowadays. He’s not bad, he’s just restricted in what he can do. Zoe Kravitz is the film’s requisite girl, and I say that because it seems the only reason she is in the film is because a female presence is treated as a box to be ticked; the character she plays has little in the way of impact on the story. She could have been important, but even though the Baker’s attempt to frame her as some kind of calming presence in Eli’s rapidly turned about life, she still comes across a strange intrusion, that has no real place in the story they want to tell.
But worst of all is easily James Franco. Leaving aside the allegations against him regards emotional and sexual misconduct, which makes seeing him on-screen an uncomfortable experience as it is, this just isn’t the role for him. Taylor is meant to be a dangerous, unhinged and ultimately threatening character; Franco has neither the look, the presence or, I fear, the acting chops to pull that off with his frame and back catalogue (he played a similar role in the similarly disappointing Spring Breakers). As with many villains over the last decade or so, I find myself wondering if Heath Ledger envisioned a cavalcade of rip-offs as he performed the Joker for The Dark Knight, with Taylor being a character that the crew obviously wants to come off as maniacal, unpredictable, uncomfortable and, in the end, viciously capable. But he’s just a copy, and not a very good one at that, with scenes where he attempts to intimidate people – one where his method of doing this is to urinate inside a shop is so tone-deaf I had to laugh – falling very short.
Taylor is also part of the film’s ending problem. The ray gun interjects itself into the story at awkward moments and never seems to fit in, and that goes doubly for the finale, wherein the two brothers, Taylor and his crew, and a lot of police officers find themselves in the middle of a gun battle. There’s too much in it to parse out: why is Eli so focused on saving the man who has lied to him repeatedly, and that he only just met a few days go? Why are Taylor’s men happy to help him assault a police station and kill a load of cops? And why, oh why, did the Baker Brothers decide to go for that awful twist ending?
I don’t want to give too much away, but Kin concludes with a truly risable sequence, featuring a not-so-surprising guest appearance from a new Hollywood heavyweight, a vomiting of exposition regards the origin of the ray gun, and then some badly misguided efforts to set-up a sequel. It has enough nods to a sequence in The Terminator that it becomes more rip-off than love letter. None of it is all that current to the matter at hand, namely Eli’s relationship to the only family he now has left, or him stepping out as his own man, or even a more basic narrative of a young black man having to learn that he doesn’t need a load of firepower to have an identity. Instead, like so much in the film, it comes off like it is from a completely different movie.
I’ll say this though, it at least looks good. I wouldn’t describe the Baker Brothers as cinematography geniuses, but they have been able to direct a slick looking production, on a fairly limited budget for a film of this type. It’s mostly dark and moody, with a splash of neon underworld; scenes and sequences set in the day time are given a contrasting dreamlike quality with over exposure and slow-mo, as if we are to think that it is the brief moments of normality that are the fantasy, while the ray gun stuff is the reality. Special effects are limited enough, as limited as Eli’s uses of the gun, and mostly left for the finale: it is only regrettable that the finale mostly fails to make the best use of them.
Kin deserves some credit for the attempt at least, and it’s clear to me that there is at least one worthwhile story in here. But there isn’t two, and the way that the Baker’s try and mash the conflicting narrative structures together ends up creating an unpalatable chimera, too gritty and based in reality to be sci-fi, too sci-fi and fantastical to be a gritty reality-based drama. The leads are good, but the rest, especially Franco, are mis-cast or mis-scripted. There’s too many positive attributes matched by negative ones, making Kin a somewhat memorable failure, but a failure nonetheless. I’m sure the Baker Brothers will get another chance, and maybe they’ll have learned their lesson. Perhaps they might consider a look at network TV, a medium this kind of idea might have been better suited for. However it turns out, Kin is not recommended.
(All images are copyright of Lionsgate).