Writer-director Cory McAbee’s Crazy & Thief gives you the uncomfortable impression that a series of private home videos have been spruced up with a few self-consciously “cinematic” tricks in a desperate effort to qualify it as palpable for public presentation. The film is comprised of a number of quiet, intimate everyday moments from a day in the lives of seven-year-old Crazy (Willa Vy McAbee) and her two-year-old brother, Thief (John Huck McAbee). Crazy discovers an envelope on a street with a number of ink blotches on it and decides that it’s a chart that can allow her and Thief to locate the earthbound stars that people tend to overlook out of their preoccupation with the stars in the sky.
To McAbee’s credit, the film isn’t the sentimental, wide-eyed celebration of childhood innocence that you might reasonably expect, but it’s charged with an odd, unflattering tension that springs from dashed expectations. Initially, you assume, or hope, that the filmmaker is building to an epiphany that will imbue Crazy and Thief’s exploits with meaning, or at least some semblance of context, but it’s eventually obvious that McAbee mistakenly believes that his characters’ resolutely dull adventures speak for themselves.
Actually, McAbee does resort to one subtle gimmick that’s somewhat distasteful. Any rational adult will watch this film and wonder where the hell the children’s parents are, and McAbee leaves that question pointedly unanswered. The children wander a city’s blocks, make a scene in a convenience store, take a train to an outer borough, and no one, until the end, displays the slightest curiosity or alarm. And the scene that would naturally address these concerns (of whether the children have run away or been abandoned) is perversely elided. The point, I think, is to maintain the purity of child’s play in an attempt to show what the varying dimensions of universal make-believe reveal about the subtleties of human interaction, but McAbee simply doesn’t exhibit the command of film language necessary to forge a narrative from found objects.
A great film, like a great novel, sometimes looks easy to achieve because its creators are exhibiting a high level of craftsmanship that renders the considerable work involved nearly invisible. But Robert Bresson didn’t just plop his non-actors in front of a camera and hope for the best, and that’s basically what McAbee appears to have done here. Crazy & Thief is ultimately an obnoxiously fraudulent non-movie—no more than 51 long minutes of watching a stranger’s kids play while the stranger nudges you in the ribs every few minutes to remind you just how truly special his kids are.