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American Thief: a Muddled Narrative Overshadows Some Good Ideas

American Thief is an awkward combination of narrative fiction and documentary that serves neither style as well as a more focused film might have.

It remains a compelling exercise to dive into the work of young filmmakers still learning the craft.  Not every director can come out of the chute with a Citizen Kane, most must develop their voice and style. American Thief is one of those films that does not quite work but shows enough signs of promise to mark Miguel Silveira as a filmmaker to keep an eye on.

American Thief broadly tells a story that surrounds the 2016 election.  Filmed in part in Times Square on election night, the film’s production takes an adaptable quasi-documentary approach to real historical events.  It is clear the filmmakers adapted the focus of their story around the evolution of society over the last few years.  It’s a gambit that does not quite pay off cohesively, but shows a gutsy, creative approach to art’s conversation with politics.

There are multiple stories at play here: the primary sees a teenage hacker investigate the police murder of his father.  He joins forces with another hacker interested in using his powers to shine a light on government surveillance.  They eventually cross paths with a conspiracy theory YouTuber and a mysterious woman linked to the big Silicon Valley companies. The film’s most effective arc belongs to Xisko Maximo Monroe, who plays the hacker investigate the murder of his father.  Monroe exudes a natural charisma that dominates the screen and tends to overshadow his scene partners.  Whether hacking a cute girl with impish charm or joking about the provenance of private cell phone pictures, Monroe is the sort of performer who I suspect will soon find his place in higher profile projects.

loud and clear reviews american thief film movie
Xisko Maximo Monroe as -Toncruz- and Khadim Diop as -Diop- in American Thief (Courtesy of Indie Memphis Film Festival)

Part of the problem, here, is that the police shooting, captured and crafted in chilling fashion long before the social upheaval of the summer of 2020, is just one small element of the film.  Leaving aside the cohesion difficulties of a narrative that spans numerous years and is presented out of order, there are just so many ideas thrown into the mix here. At some points, Silveira integrates actual footage of real people reacting to the aftermath of the 2016 election.  Later scenes see the actors enmeshed with the original Black Lives Matter protests and drawn into a stark dialogue with real people. I cannot help but wonder if I might have found the combination of documentary and narrative more effective if I had not just seen it deployed more persuasively in I Carry You with Me just a few weeks ago.  I am all for defying the classical conventions of filmmaking, so I appreciate Silveira’s efforts to try something new, but the effect feels muddled.

As the film progresses, it adds more genre elements from both sci-fi and thriller, but the less “real” moment feel exposed by American Thief’s commitment to documentary elsewhere.  While there’s enough here to see that Silveira would certainly have a future for himself over at Blumhouse, I do hope he keeps defying conventional narrative.  It’s easy to imagine a future project coalescing more smoothly into something truly special.

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