Sundance 2017: ‘Dayveon’ Is An Evocative But Painfully Inarticulate Slice Of Arkansas Life

Dayveon, from Pakistani-Arkansan director Amman Abbasi, is beautifully shot, evocative slice of low-income life in Arkansas, that has the ring of authenticity but not much in the way of story. Co-executive produced by members of the “North Carolina Mafia” — David Gordon Green, Jody Hill, and Danny McBride (along with seven other people) — Dayveon follows its title character, a 13-year-old played by Devin Blackmon, as he tries to cope with the death of his older brother and the perils of working class rural African-American life — drugs, gangs, fractured families.

Dayveon is being pulled in two different directions, towards stable family life and keeping his nose clean by his brother in law on one end, who lives with Dayveon and his sister and is essentially a surrogate father, and towards petty theft and gang-banging knuckleheadlery by the local Bloods on the other. Dayveon‘s mush-mouthed local dialect is so impenetrable that it almost needs subtitles, while the cinematography is so lush and transporting that you practically sweat from vicarious humidity. It’s all shot in a square aspect ratio, which is fine, though aspect-ratio manipulation is one of those arthouse gimmicks I’m always wary of, since it has a tendency to reflect a filmmaker focused more on arbitrary technical details than on story. Dayveon, unfortunately, doesn’t exactly refute this prejudice.

Dayveon is suitably transporting and authentic, but seems to have trouble expressing much in the way of coherent thoughts. Dayveon has a flat affect that doesn’t betray much for most of the movie (I will never understand why indie filmmakers seem to love grief so much), and you never feel like you really get to know him. Even once you penetrate the dialect it’s hard to know exactly what the characters are trying to say. One climactic moment, for instance, involves Dayveon’s brother-in-law (in a solid performance, from a strictly acting stand point) saying, over and over, “I get it.”

A lot of the rest of the movie involves variations on “You straight?” “I’m good though.” “You cool?” “I’m straight.” “What you mean you straight?” “I said I’m cool.” “You good though?”

And so forth.

The film’s MacGuffin, of sorts, is Dayveon’s brother’s gun, and his decision to keep it or get rid of it. This is only really interesting if you attach a lot of symbolic meaning to it, because otherwise it’s a housekeeping decision. A lot of the film is like that. These small, sort of uneventful moments that seem to be intended to have grand symbolic value, like Dayveon riding his bike, or seeing a burning bike, or skipping rocks, or getting stung by a bee (there are bees superimposed over the closing credits, in case you missed the part where that was supposed to be a metaphor).

There are plenty of places in Dayveon where you could theoretically attach your own meaning, but if you’re not bringing a lot to it, they tend to obfuscate more than they articulate, seemingly there as a substitute for something to say than as a way to say something. Which is to say, it’s fine for the characters to be incapable of expressing a coherent thought (I kind of enjoy it, in fact) but not for the movie itself.