“So, where are we going?”
There are more genres of New York-set films than there are neighborhoods in all the boroughs put together. Yet, at least in recent history, the city has been captured by the camera primarily one of three ways. There’s the upper crust fantasy of Manhattan mimosas and shopping sprees. There are the slender coffee shops and farm-to-table pop-up restaurants of Williamsburg. And there are the fear-infested crevices of the 70’s crime wave. Plenty of nooks have been filled in between these pillars, seemingly as many views on the city as humanly possible. Even great recent NYC works seem primarily indebted, using the dialect of past artists to widen a narrowing spectrum. Yet, even with all of the limitations set on finding some new way to view the most populated American city, Adam Leon has pulled off two features that hit familiar notes through a unique and intimate lens.
Neither Gimme the Loot nor his new film Tramps sound like strikingly original pieces based on plot alone. That’s primarily because story is more of a backdrop in both, a room through which the characters can effortlessly float. And the locations may be similar to those shot before, countless times over the years. Yet there’s something ineffable about Leon’s output, a quality that tosses a dash of pulp trappings alongside a helping of Richard Linklater’s calm, conversational empathy. If Gimme the Loot was more along the vibe of Slacker, using its fluid movement to wile away the hours, Tramps is a criminal bent on Before Sunrise. Neither of Leon’s films are as good as Linklater’s, but that’s a tall order. That they even come close to the same combination of misleading breeze and easy charm is an appealing sign, given how many indie directors have aped the style and tossed out vapid nothings.
It helps that Leon keeps his ambitions relatively limited. At times, Tramps threatens to open up into a wider view of a bungled criminal exchange. We spend a bit too much time with the seeming assistant to the regional crime boss, played by Mike Birbiglia. The actor fits in well, but the heart of Tramps is so clearly invested with its central couple that these occasional diversions feel like simply filling out a running time. That duo, Danny (Callum Turner) and Ellie (Grace Van Patten) are introduced to each other via this botched mission. Ellie is meant to be the driver, with Danny fielding the drop but his inexperience becomes clear when he panics and picks up the wrong bag. It’s of little surprise that he makes such a blunder; Turner plays Danny for all his awkward lankiness is worth, though never veering near cartoonish. His arms bend and twist seemingly at will, his exasperation with himself matched only by his nature of being pinballed around a chaotic world. Turner does brilliant work in grounding him, fleshing out the minor details that Leon squeezes in. This is the kind of guy who mentions an old flame from high school as if you’re sure to know her too, dropping an old classmate’s name like he’s reading off the cover of People magazine. He imbues everything with such specificity; look at the way he reacts when a cigarette is flicked at his back. He brushes it off, pauses a second, then reaches further into his shirt, panicking only after the fact. He’s a person, and we know him as soon as he walks onscreen and offers his first of many goofy grins.
Ellie is more inscrutable, and by her own design. She’s into the con less for its own sake than the possibilities it could offer. She clearly gets a rush from the idea of change, melting a bit when trying on somebody else’s dress. She’s given the opportunity to do this when the two have to escape upstate to retrieve the lost suitcase, an item perfectly and familiarly suited to its role as McGuffin. Here, the two begin to connect though things are shaky at first. He’s not terribly great at talking; yet he never stops doing so. She’s overly defensive, though for seemingly understandable (if largely unspoken) reasons. The two aren’t as odd of a couple as they likely imagine themselves to be. Both Danny and Ellie have trouble getting themselves fully outside of their brains. The former tries and generally misses, the latter rarely even swings.
Their flirtation has a natural development, each sinking into one another based on brief moments of necessity. Sure, there’s a rush to the sequence where they investigate the suitcase’s whereabouts. But even that thrill is more rooted in their burgeoning connection than anything else. Tramps is rather unabashedly a romance first and foremost, but it takes enough time getting there to earn each slight step forward for the two. Leon’s camera is in nearly constant motion, as it was in Gimme the Loot. Or, if the camera is still, the characters are often moving somewhere closer or further away. He is a director of movement, tying the physical act of travel to the emotional connections ebbing and flowing between Danny and Ellie. The film’s most striking shot finds both the camera and the characters still, but with a train shuffling along between the lens and the subjects. Their heads are captured across the way through the cars’ slim windows. Even at rest, these two are headed somewhere new.
What makes Leon so good at capturing New York City is that there’s no ego behind it; these are familiar neighborhoods, not an overwhelming metropolis. He finds the specific within cramped apartments or wonderful shots that look down on the characters from the tracks above. You can feel the way New York City sticks to you in summer months like a t-shirt glued to your torso by beads of sweat. You sense those long afternoons that stretch out, hours expanding inside of minutes. Tramps is neither entirely slight, nor is it overly weighed down by pretense or some grand meaning (though plenty of notions are briefly hinted at, such as a thought on mortality via the lifespan of pets). Ultimately, Tramps is like those summer days. It’s only exceptional in the sense of it being so ordinary, special for what it has to say about the everyday contours of life. When we speak of escapist fare, we often refer to exploding blockbusters, gnarly horror, uproarious comedy. Tramps is something other than that, swooning only at the end when everything spirals together. Leon knows the tropes, and when to finally pull them out. By then, we’re already won over. This is a film light on its feet, charming as hell and able to move calmly and swiftly through an overeager summer day.