A big winner at last year's SXSW, Gimme the Loot is a pocket-size Bronx indie with the wispiest of narrative ideas: A couple of teen graffiti bombers decide to gain fame by tagging the Mets' Home Run Apple. Malcolm (Ty Hickson) and Sofia (Tashiana Washington) are mates only in spraying, and they work a variety of small-time crimes (dealing, stolen goods, botched burglary) to raise the money needed to fulfill their dream. It's a nowhere setup without stakes — tagger prestige and two-fifty will get you on the B train — taken from a challenge uttered on public-access TV. Bombing per se seems like a rather odd '80s-retro peg in a post-Exit Through the Gift Shop world, but once he gets going, first-time director Leon doesn't invest too heavily in the premise. He's much more interested in the neighborhoods' textures, dropping his kids into skirmishes and mishaps, and focusing, slowly, on their budding romance.
The film is something of a quintessential En-Why-See do-it-yourselfer, done up in Early Spike Lee and accepting urban decay and poverty like the teens do — as the unremarkable way things are. The sense of found authenticity is pure enough to sometimes make Gimme the Loot feel unstructured, but it still runs largely on old-fashioned movie charisma. Washington, playing a defensive and belligerent child of her borough, never less than radiant and razor-like. Draped in the same baggy T-shirt for the whole film, Sofia feels the pressure of her environment more than the other characters, and a lot of her energy is spent trying to instruct virtually every man she meets (except Malcolm) that she will be respected come hell or high water. (When Malcolm tries to explain stickage — an affliction men in boxers suffer on hot days — during a parked-car stakeout, a disgusted Sofia tells him to "I ain't never heard of that; better go to the fucking doctor.") Washington gives the girl a fast mind, a faster mouth, a highly tuned bullshit meter, and a wariness that suggests a history of abuse. You believe everything she says.
Hickson, however amiable and funny, is still a touch awkward with dialogue, but Leon's film is busy with ancillary personality, especially the dazzling Zoë Lescaze as a rich-white-girl pot-buyer with no self-control and a penchant for water-tower diving, and Meeko Gattuso, playing a gravelly-voiced ex-con with face ink, the protagonists' go-to black marketeer. Leon's grungy résumé indie is a conscientiously modest deal in the end, with a sweet, mumblecoresque ending, but it glows with unmistakable star power.