THE STORY – Armed with a mysterious weapon, an ex-con and his adopted teenage brother go on the run from a vengeful criminal and a gang of otherworldly soldiers.
THE CAST – Jack Reynor, Zoë Kravitz, Carrie Coon, Dennis Quaid, James Franco & Myles Truitt
THE TEAM – Jonathan Baker, Josh Baker (Directors) & Daniel Casey (Writer)
THE RUNNING TIME – 102 Minutes
By Will Mavity
Unlike some disastrous YA would-be franchise starters like “The 5th Wave,” “Kin” is particularly frustrating because it has so much going for it. Well shot, often well acted and featuring a blistering soundscape, “Kin” is laudable in many respects. But its inability to decide on an identity and its desire to spawn the next big franchise hamstring its ability to reach its potential.
Young Eli (“Black Lightning’s” Myles Truitt) is coping with his mother’s untimely death getting into fights and stealing bits of scrap metal from derelict buildings around Detroit. When he discovers a mysterious piece of alien technology, he attracts the attention of advanced technological beings who want their weapon back. Meanwhile, his estranged ex-con brother Jimmy (Jack Reynor) invokes the wrath of a local gangster (James Franco). Together, Jimmy and Eli must flee Detroit and embark on a road trip across the country, while making new enemies in the process. In between blowing up cars and stealing from Midwestern gangsters, Jimmy and Eli must learn what it really means to be brothers.
If the plot sounds like two different movies stitched together that’s because it feels exactly like it sounds. One part of the movie wants to be the next “Mud,” focusing on a scrappy ex-con learning to find a heart and mentoring a young kid. That side of the story actually often works. Reynor channels his usual talents into the role, taking a character who is irresponsible and selfish on the page, and transforming him into a more lovable Chris Pratt on screen. He may make poor decisions but you can’t help but like him. And his bonding storyline with Eli is actually touching if a bit rushed. This film feels like a solid mid-budget ending.
The other half of the film feels like the half-baked remnants of any one of the many YA sci-fi franchise starters that have come and gone in the last decade—“I Am Number Four,” “The 5th Wave,” etc. Eli has one of those alien guns from “District 9” and it helps him and Jimmy get out of any number of scraps. And while teenage Eli having a gun that blows up buildings and vaporizes people on the spot adds into the film’s message of “life is hard but you should still do the right thing,” it also feels like it belongs in another movie. And then, the film’s climax introduces us to a group of aliens who decide to drop all of this exposition about intergalactic wars and multiple dimensions before exiting entirely. And one of the aliens is played by a major actor, whose cameo appearance totally pulls you out of the movie and only serves to show that “look…this can be a franchise! We have this famous actor onboard.”
It all feels forced into what otherwise could have been a grounded coming of age story. On the plus side, the sci-fi elements allow directors Jonathan and Josh Baker and cinematographer Larkin Seiple (“Swiss Army Man”) to splash the screen with some gorgeous images on a low budget. Their dynamic direction combined with Mark Day’s whipcrack editing moves the film at a propulsive, heart-pounding pace. The sound design is immersive, with guns and explosions having their own distinct identities. And Scottish band Mogwai provides a fitting techno score.
As previously mentioned, Reynor proves he is charismatic leading man material of the Chris Pratt variety, while Truitt proves largely up to the task of selling his own emotional beats. Zoe Kravitz is adequate as a good-hearted stripper, having demonstrated some growth since her screen debut in “X-Men: First Class.” Denis Quaid doesn’t have much to do as Reynor and Truitt’s father, and his attempts at a gravelly blue-collar Detroit accent often make his dialogue difficult to decipher. Despite being third billed, the amazing Carrie Coon is wasted, relegated to a five-minute scene towards the end of the film (presumably just to set her up for a bigger role in any sequel.) And then there is James Franco.
While everyone else is playing their parts grounded and natural, Franco goes full ham, putting on a cartoonish Brooklyn accent and growing a mullet. He feels like he belongs to a different film. One populated by people who sing while murdering people and who gleefully urinate in the middle of convenience stores (yes he does both of those things). His own relationship with his brother is meant to serve as a foil to Reynor and Truitt’s relationship, but Franco’s over the top portrayal robs the character and the role he plays of any real emotional heft. Every time he is on screen, he is a distraction.
The writing is a mixed bag. It’s nothing particularly complex, but it nails certain emotional beats (even if it botches others) and the dialogue can be rough at times. However, major kudos are owed to the writers for being willing to lead their film with very flawed characters. “Kin” appreciates that in the real world, heroes are not squeaky clean. They make bad decisions and sometimes they hurt people, even when trying to do the right thing. That moral ambiguity is decidedly lacking in many modern action films. At the same time, the social ramifications of forcing a 14-year-old boy to repeatedly use a gun are glossed over. Although the presence of weapons allows the film to dig into its moral ambiguity, it also forces us to wonder if we ought to hold it against the filmmakers for placing such imagery in a film that is PG-13 and ostensibly targeting young audiences.
In short, “Kin” is the epitome of a mixed bag. The more into its sci-fi tropes it shifted, the less compelling it became. And if those sci-fi tropes will dominate any follow-up film, I’m not sure how successful it will be. But as far as being, to the best of my knowledge, the first-ever YA film noir, and a decent coming-of-age film to boot, there is a lot to like in “Kin.” It’s nowhere near as it could have been and that is frustrating but it is also much better than its other contemporaries. I look forward to seeing what its two stars and its two directors offer us in the future.
THE FINAL SCORE
THE GOOD – Half of the film works as a gritty coming of age film. Reynor is excellent and the direction and production values are top-notch.
THE BAD – The sci-fi elements feel forced in from a different movie and Franco is distractingly bad.