Directed by Josh Baker and Jonathan Baker
Produced by Summit Entertainment, No Trace Camping, and 21 Laps Entertainment
August 31st, 2018
I wanted to love Kin. I really did. The basic premise—a sad kid finds a mysterious science fictional object in an otherwise realistic setting—calls to mind works like Jonathan Lethem’s The Fortress of Solitude or Daniel Clowes’s The Death-Ray, which use genre tropes to explore the psyches of their tortured adolescent characters. That Kin’s protagonist is a poor black kid from Detroit creates an opportunity to explore social issues like race, class, policing, and gun violence. But where The Fortress of Solitude and The Death-Ray manage to seamlessly blend SF spectacle with naturalistic drama, Kin jerks uncomfortably between genres, never really finding its footing. While there are plenty of compelling moments throughout, the film never adds up to a cohesive whole.
Kin is an expanded adaptation of the 2014 short film, Bag Man, both directed by Jonathan and Josh Baker. It stars Miles Truitt as Eli, a troubled fourteen-year-old who stumbles upon an extraordinarily powerful ray gun while scavenging abandoned Detroit houses for copper wire to sell for money to buy shoes. His mother has recently died, his father Hal (Dennis Quaid) struggles to keep Eli on the right path, and his brother Jimmy (Jack Reynor) has only just gotten out of prison at the film’s outset. Jimmy’s debt to menacing local gangster Taylor Balik (James Franco) sets off a chain of events which take the brothers on a road trip across the country. Along the way, they meet Milly (Zoë Kravitz), a dancer at a shady strip club who charms both the brothers. They are pursued not only by Taylor and his gang, but also a pair of masked, armored figures with unknown motives.
The heart of Kin’s problems is its inability to mesh its different genre conventions. It, at various times, wants to be a naturalistic drama, an over-the-top crime story, and a science fiction adventure. The pieces themselves are often well executed, at least when taken in and of themselves. Early segments of the film feature long, elegiac sequences illustrating Eli’s life with little to no dialogue and gorgeous cinematography. One can really feel the sense of isolation and despair that pervades Eli’s life. As far as the crime story goes, James Franco is genuinely menacing as Taylor, creating a sense of stakes in a movie where most problems can be solved by shooting a ray gun. The ray gun itself is very cool-looking, and the effects when it fires really convey how powerful and otherworldly it is.
The problem, though, is that these elements never seem to inform one another, and at times actively work against each other. Eli is a very quiet, contemplative kid, which works well when the film is quiet and contemplative, but as he is surrounded by broader characters and wilder situations, his quietness feels more like blankness. And while compelling as an over-the-top antagonist, Taylor’s actions frequently do not make logical sense in a world which at first feels realistic. Perhaps worst of all, the ray gun largely serves as a deus ex machina for getting the characters out of bad situations, with no consequences for its use or exploration of its origins until the film’s final minutes, when it is explained in an out-of-nowhere infodump obviously meant to set up for a sequel.
One of the most disappointing things about Kin to me was its disinterest in social and political issues. Eli is black, and his family is white, but, besides a couple of moments where someone must explain that he’s adopted, it doesn’t really appear in the film—his race doesn’t really come up at all. While I don’t need Kin to be a treatise on race in America or anything, it seems very strange for a film in 2018 to feature a black kid who runs around with a giant gun and not even mention race or policing or gun violence. The film also contains some genuinely problematic elements. Its emotional core is the relationship between Eli and Jimmy, which is built on manipulation (and arguably kidnapping) turning into a “heartwarming” fraternal bond. It’s a creepier dynamic than the film intends, especially early on when the plot is still a bit more naturalistic. Likewise, the main female character in the movie, Milly, is a “stripper with a heart of gold” who exists largely to serve the male characters as Jimmy’s potential love interest and Eli’s potential surrogate mother. It’s not as egregious as some other examples of the trope, largely due to Zoe Kravitz’s charming performance, but it’s still trite and feels unnecessary. Given that the main character is fourteen and getting him into a strip club at all requires some narrative handwaving, the inclusion of this character feels like checking a box on a list of crime fiction clichés.
Kin isn’t a terrible film by any means. It’s just very inconsistent. There are times when its charms outweigh its failures, the cinematography and special effects are wonderful, and there are plenty of moments that I enjoyed. The final ten minutes suggest a bigger, wilder SF adventure to come, although it’s still up in the air if such a film will come to be. Kin is an ambitious movie, but, unable to juggle its ambitions, it falls too often to clichéd writing. Perhaps if this hypothetical sequel comes to be, the filmmakers will be able to point their ambitions toward a more focused, cohesive genre effort.
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