At the surface, the new film Dayveon can seem rote. Centerstage: a young Black boy with little or no family, falls into gang culture, and they become the family he never has, but the lifestyle makes him suffer violently because of it. And if you pay little or no attention, like most people unfortunately do, then that’s all you’ll see.
But that would be a shame.
Because from jump, the mainly circulated image of the film, with 13-year old Dayveon, played by newcomer Devin Blackmon, bare-chested and arms palmed behind his somewhat bushy hair, and an all too familiar tribute painting in the background, let’s you know that this character – and thus the film – is not those stereotypes: he’s young, and as such he’s very vulnerable, and kinda soft, though growing into an awareness, physically and mentally, like all those in their early teens.
Dayveon lives right outside Little Rock in the rural town of Wrightsville, Arkansas, ripe with a big gang presence, despite a population of just over two thousand people. It’s then very little surprise that the underprivileged town has, since 1981, been home to the Wrightsville Unit of the Arkansas Department of Correction – as the young Black men and women there look to survive amidst a society that breeds them into prison in support of local infrastructure. The Wrightsville DOC is the fourth thing that comes up on a Google search. A heavy reality, yet Dayveon’s coming-of-age story is more intimate.
Struggling with his big brother Trevor’s recent death, Dayveon spends his hot summer days roaming around Wrightsville trying to make sense of the world. His only sense of stability is his sister Kim, her bulky boyfriend Bryan, a reluctant father figure who Dayveon rejects as a stand-in for his brother, and best friend Brayden, who Dayveon does consider a brother. Still, no one can replace Trevor, and wanting to feel closer to big bro’s world, Dayveon joins the Bloods. Brayden soon does the same.
Yet it doesn’t really work. Beset by constant dreams that Trevor is alive, even the camaraderie of this new violent world cannot make up for Dayveon’s loss. “They got to feel my pain…I’m teaching you that shit so those motherfuckers can feel your pain,” exclaims Blood leader Mook, who takes Dayveon under his wing and whose own brother was killed in a violent confrontation. And quickly, the wayward Dayveon finds himself at a violent crossroads that may alter the course of his life and those around him.
Dayveon is not a simplistic film. Having mostly non- actors star allows it to feel almost documentary-like, yet the visuals instantly betray that. And this is the complicated aspect to the film – it works brilliantly at portraying contrasts to tell its story.
The visuals conjured up by director Amman Abbasi (who grew up in Little Rock surrounded by gang culture) and his cinematographer Dustin Lane, are transfixing. At one moment everything feels like you’re living in these character’s kitchen, then next dark hues give way to stunted framing, as lens flares and other effects engage both a haunting and inviting visual perspective, portraying expert storytelling and mood to wider effect than big budget movies. Nature, in its own contrasts, are a big part of these visuals, with motifs of water and bees, both of which are threatening and threatened, being the most employed. As the filmmakers note, “innocence and gentleness bleed together with corruption and violence.” Indeed, total contrasts, and yet it works in visualizing Dayveon’s brittle state of mind over the three days Dayveon takes place, especially in a key moment within the middle of the film which begins to turn around the perspective of our eponymous protagonist.
Part “Boyz ‘n the Hood,” part “Welcome to Pine Hill” (director Keith Miller’s pastoral journey on how a reformed drug dealer ultimately chooses to live his life), Dayveon is a unique peek into the life of young Black men in an area of the United States that tends to get little attention, artistically or otherwise.
Executive produced by two of Amman’s mentors, director David Gordon Green and director/producer James Schamus, Dayveon opens in New York and Los Angeles on Wednesday, September 13.