Shot in 4:3 with sliver-thin depth of field and a lush palette of swampy greens, Amman Abbasi’s Dayveon is largely predicated on the idea of imparting a hyperreal sensuality to a region—an almost exclusively black small town in rural Arkansas—not often depicted on the big screen. The results, which sometimes conjure the spirit of Eugene Richards’s medium-format photojournalism in the Arkansas Delta in the late 1960s, are frequently breathtaking—and in no way trivial aestheticism. Small truths of the milieu, like the way leather peels off a sofa in the moist summer heart, or the smudgy details of a window in a “hotboxed” Oldsmobile, become prominent pieces of mise-en-scène in Abbasi’s careful, patient framing, accumulating in a way that richly contextualizes the downtrodden lives of his characters.
Abbasi, though, isn’t confident enough to let this detailed environment pull its own weight, and Dayveon ultimately leans on overwrought metaphors and contrived plot hijinks to make sense of itself. The overfamiliar story revolves around 13-year-old Dayveon (Devin Blackmon), 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 (Dontrell Bright), and an amoral gang leader, Mook (Lachion Buckingham). From the moment “Day-Day” first meditates on his makeshift memorial to his fallen sibling, caressing a tender photograph and then an inherited handgun, innocence and corruption are insistently juxtaposed: Afternoons spent playing video games with Brian or biking around with his harmless comrade, Brayden (Kordell Johnson), bleed into nights spent apprenticing on the assorted petty crimes of Mook and his merciless Bloods.
The film locates rugged, unspectacular beauty in both of these narrative threads; Abbasi even indulges slow motion in the middle of certain scenes as if to savor moments of developmental combustion before they’re gone. But the specificity of Dayveon’s narrative is too often shoehorned into a more general structuring framework of troubled adolescence. Recurring images of a swarming beehive outside the boy’s home are understood as symbols of a cutthroat social ecosystem even before Abbasi swoops in to reveal a bee sinking its stinger into Dayveon’s arm, and the director continues to belabor this loaded, sub-Malickian imagery throughout. Similarly grating is his tendency to undercut the immersive, buzzing soundscape of the delta with excerpts of uninspired modern classical piano, an emotionally manipulative choice that betrays the influence of executive producer David Gordon Green.
Scattered throughout, however, and especially before Dayveon embarks on a self-consciously stakes-raising pivot in its final act, 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. In one scene, Mook and his fellow down-and-outers discuss their economic struggles while passing around a blunt, with one particular guy gently falling asleep with the words “eternal spinning” falling cryptically off his lips. Shortly after, Abbasi captures the getaway from an armed robbery in only fragmentary close-ups as streetlights periodically illuminate those in the car, their faces glistening with sweat. The filmmaker allegedly workshopped his screenplay with members of the community well before shooting it, and it’s lived-in moments like these that speak to his firsthand experience. As for the more derivative bits, well, not everyone can be Roberto Minervini.