J.B. Spins

Jazz, film, and improvised culture.

Sunday, January 29, 2017

Sundance ’17: Deidra & Laney Rob a Train

Cinema practically began with the Lumière Brothers’ Arrival of a Train, but ever since 1903’s Great Train Robbery, most train movies involve some sort of larceny. The Tanner sisters will be the next sort-of-great train-robbers. They ought to know better, but desperate times call for desperate measures in Sydney Freeland’s Netflix-produced Deidra & Laney Rob a Train (trailer here), which screened at the 2017 Sundance Film Festival.

In the real world, Deidra Tanner would be showered with scholarships as the economically-disadvantaged, African American likely valedictorian of her high school. In Freeland and screenwriter Shelby Farrell’s world, she will have to rob trains to pay her first year’s tuition. Granted, she and sister Laney have the added expense of their mother’s bail. Apparently, mother Marigold just snapped one day at work, taking out her frustrations on a flat-screen TV. Of course, their absconded father is no help financially, but at least old Chet moves back in, to provide some low-stress adult supervision.

Taking matters into their own hands, the sisters start boosting high-end electronic goods from cargo trains laying over in the nearby railyard. Finally, being on the proverbial wrong side of the tracks pays off. However, the rail line’s over-zealous investigator soon starts suspecting the Tanners, based on their proximity and need. Ordinarily, Deidra would be the cautious one and Laney, a Teen Miss Idaho contestant, is the starry-eyed one, but the older sibling has been rather recklessly skimming off their takings to build her college nest egg, unbeknownst to Laney, risking their unity when they will need it most.

D&L often feels like a throwback to 1970s Disney live-action movies, which isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Granted, the pothead ex-boyfriend who eBays their loot isn’t exactly a classic juvenile Kurt Russell character, but whatever. Generally, there is the same level of characterization and a largely comparable breeziness.

Ashleigh Murray and Rachel Crow are adequately likable and upbeat as the Tanner Sisters. Missi Pyle probably gets the biggest laughs as Mrs. Fowler, Laney’s pageant coach. Yet, David Sullivan adds the greatest dimension to the film as Chet, the deadbeat dad who finally starts to step up. Unfortunately, the normally reliable Tim Blake Nelson perpetrates the worst kind of Barney Fife shtick as Truman, the railroad flatfoot.

Okay, so D&L is mostly harmless, aside from teaching kids sometimes stealing is okay. Plus, the title will rankle the pedantically inclined—obviously “train” should be plural. Still, it definitely celebrates the family unit—and a relatively traditional one at that. Mildly recommended, Deidra & Laney Rob a Train premiered (strangely enough in the NEXT section) at this year’s Sundance.

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