Jonathan and Josh Baker’s Kin, a feature that comprises little more than an extended introduction to its characters, resembles a TV pilot that’s been released into theaters as a standalone property. Its premise is simple enough: 14-year-old Detroit native Eli (Myles Truitt) finds a futuristic, incredibly powerful weapon in one of the city’s derelict buildings, and puts it to use when forced to go on the run with his recently paroled brother, Jimmy (Jack Reynor), who botches a robbery that earns him the enmity of local gangsters. But Kin never builds out from this setup, instead getting bogged down in inert scenes that regurgitate the same character beats and action ad nauseam.
Those beats are resolutely superficial, defining the characters in generic, two-dimensional terms. Eli, an adoptee who’s barely known the long-imprisoned Jimmy, shows only the faintest reluctance to tag along with his brother, and right out of the gate Kin forgoes a potentially complex charting of their relationship as the brothers hit the road. But in terms of character depth, Eli and Jimmy might as well be the Karamazov brothers when stacked against Taylor Balik (James Franco, fatally channeling his Spring Breakers character but without the humor), the leader of a Detroit gang whose members are exclusively white, which goes a long way toward explaining how his crew appears small enough to fit comfortably in a mid-sized SUV.
The hole left by the blank, two-dimensional characters can’t even be filled by the action, which consistently sets up intriguing scenarios, like the robbing of a poker game that takes place in the back room of a dairy farm, only to resolve them with a few blasts from Eli’s ray gun. Similarly, a climactic showdown with Taylor’s gang in a police station aims to channel the brutish sense of horror that pervades the station raid from The Terminator, but its intended effect is the opposite given how the film’s editing conspicuously cuts around the action, which rushes by in decidedly PG-13-friendly fragments.
In the last decade, the falling costs of high-quality CGI effects have allowed low-budget sci-fi films to look presentable enough for the multiplex while also permitting filmmakers to take more risks and showcase their idiosyncratic approaches to the genre. Kin, though, is the latest film to suggest that even these kinds of works have been folded into the increasingly TV-like model of American genre filmmaking. A parting twist even sets up the potential for a possible sequel, a sobering reminder that no genre film is now too small to escape Hollywood’s demand that new properties be testing grounds for potential franchises rather than for artistic experimentation.