“Sixty grand and a space gun—who the hell are you people?”
Out of context, that mid-film Zoë Kravitz quote sounds ridiculous. But Kin, a new sci-fi adventure meets broken-family societal drama from a pair of first-time filmmakers, proves to be far more grounded in heady real-world issues than you’d expect any “kid finds alien” adventure to be. Trying to combine peanut-butter-and-kimchi this way (filmmaking-ly speaking) presents a lot of obvious challenges, from tone to maintaining a logical narrative. But filmmakers Josh and Jonathan Baker have somehow made a movie that combines all of it in a manner that never feels forced.
“It’s your debut, and you want to show the world what you’re interested in and what you like… [Kin] is our taste in cinema combined,” Josh Baker tells Ars. “We made a movie we want to see.”
In Kin, life could be better for young Eli (portrayed by excellent newcomer Myles Truitt). Adoptive dad Hal (Dennis Quaid) remains the only family he has, and these blue-collar Detroiters live quite modestly. Hal works long hours in construction, leaving Eli largely on his own. The kid must resort to things like scouring abandoned buildings for copper to resell it if he wants a new pair of sneakers for school.
Two unexpected events soon shake up this reality. For the family, Hal’s eldest son Jimmy (Jack Reynor) shows up for dinner one night, fresh off a prison stint for robbery charges. Eli barely knows big brother at this point in his life, and Dad has plenty of skepticism, but Jimmy seems alright. He looks healthy and swears he’ll find a full-time gig on some work site in order to do everything straight this time around. Unfortunately, that plan doesn’t last long—Jimmy’s well-being stems from a bit of inside protection he requested from a shady outfit run by Taylor (James Franco). And with Jimmy back on the street, Taylor would like to request fees for his service… totaling about $60,000.
As for Eli… well, he had his own life-altering moment the day before. While searching through a rundown warehouse, he hears a scuffle. The kid doesn’t run, his curiosity gets the better of him. Eli soon finds himself looking at a seemingly lifeless future soldier flanked by a piece of gear that vaguely looks like a large, cap-on USB stick (it has LED indicators, and it sounds like electricity flows through it upon touch). Eli bails for now after hearing something move, but if cinema has taught us anything, good luck keeping a 14-year-old boy away from some kind of Halo-IRL crime scene for long.
Without spoiling too much, Eli soon gets an unexpected invite from Jimmy to take off on a spontaneous road trip—something about dad needing to work overtime for the week, him wanting the brothers to bond on a trip out to their mom’s one-time favorite vacation spot. Skeptical but ultimately wanting to get to know his brother a bit better, Eli puts his newest acquisition in a gym bag and heads out late at night with Jimmy. The trip starts off with just the two of them, but a few interested parties have quickly taken to the road, too.
Perhaps it will surprise no one that a set of ’80s adventure film-loving brothers decided to make their own family-on-an-adventure film. But the Baker brothers deliver something much more complex than The Goonies with Kin.
As soon as Kin reveals its premise, it feels clever and fun—a good kid in a bad situation beyond his control gets a bit of divine intervention via an alien-ish raygun. “It’s actually a classic sword-in-the-stone fable,” Jonathan Baker notes. “We’re all familiar with a young boy finding an other worldly weapon that only he can yield, that ultimate power being in the hands of an innocent.”
Don’t expect a lighthearted romp from there, however. Kin has no interest in being straight sci-fi, straight adventure, or straight gritty family drama. It blends all these impulses and reference points together for a film that ebbs and flows between tones and styles (though perhaps in a less overt way than something like BlacKkKlansman).
One moment, you get an action set-piece where you cheer on Eli and Jimmy as they take revenge on bad guys within neon-filled club. But with the next big visual sequence, you cringe watching Jimmy (who realistically doesn’t become brother-of-the-year overnight) encourage Eli to don a ski mask and naively follow big brother into criminal territory. The Bakers have filled Kin with these kind of dichotomous, standout visuals that leave you thinking well after leaving the theater. Seeing Eli stare down a bunch of jerks while holding the raygun, his diminutive stature backlit by hot pink lights, feels like a triumphant hero moment à la Eleven saving Mike from the bullies in Stranger Things. But seeing him having to interlock his fingers behind his head because of circumstances well outside of his control delivers a reality-based gut punch within the same sitting.
“It’s a wish fulfillment movie at its heart—a young outsider finds something that changes his whole world and everything he knows, and it leads him to a new destiny,” Jonathan Baker says. “But [Kin] should also start conversations and make you feel a sort of way. A lot of timely things sort of crept into the film—that’s what we love about making movies.”
Kin certainly qualifies as an original science-fiction franchise, though it ultimately feels more like real life drama that has another world increasingly poking through. The Baker brothers sprinkle in elements of whatever these mysterious soldiers (called “Cleaners”) hide from the start, making the eventual payoff feel earned even if most of the film focuses on the central family (it reminded me of season 2 of Fargo in this way). While the film never spells everything about its sci-fi aspect out, its final act makes it clear the Bakers have thought through all the rules and myths of Kin‘s fantasy elements (making it another effective small story in a galaxy far, far away type of film).
Your mileage with the main plot may vary from “fun action ride” to “a bit eye-rolly,” but it’s hard to argue that Kin isn’t well made. Truitt portrays an innocence and vulnerability that never feels forced and draws viewers in even if his brother’s decisions start to feel cartoon-levels of bad at times. The small performances from actors like Quaid (and two other A-listers coming later) pop. And while Franco’s inclusion has likely and rightfully been downplayed in the film’s lead-up given the accusations that surfaced against the actor earlier this year (Kin had been developed from a 2014 short called Bag Man and was casted/completed long before 2018), he remains effective as a skeezy though capable villain that can make you somehow root for Jimmy. (Noticeably absent from this performance paragraph: Zoë Kravitz as Milly—she gets shortchanged quite a bit in the role department as the film’s only prominent female character, starting with how she too-easily goes along with the obviously destructive Jimmy).
The Bakers have also put together some smirk-inducing filmmaking with their debut. Kin has a Wizard Of Oz moment where color suddenly enters Eli’s life, but this film frames it in a much different way. The original score from Mogwai gives everything an otherworldly feel even in its most reality-grounded moments. And the visual effects—all done practically, sans-green screen—serve a similar purpose. Yes, rayguns won’t be showing up in stores tomorrow, but that or other Cleaners’ devices don’t seem unrealistic in their design or execution. The sci-fi stuff never pulls viewers away from the increasingly tough circumstances for Eli. (Off-camera, the Bakers note that opting for practical effects also helped everything on set feel very authentic for a young actor. Truitt’s performance speaks to that).
Kin doesn’t set out to answer every question about its newly introduced universe. It doesn’t necessarily offer profound thoughts on any of the real-world issues it touches on, either (the difficulty of being a young black kid in low-income America; the systemic odds stacked against you and your family post-incarceration; what introducing violence to someone at a young age can do; etc.). The film simply delivers a gripping, focused story that skillfully intertwines styles while somehow competently sticking the landing. For their first-effort, the Baker brothers put together a film that will likely stick with some kids today just like they say The Last Starfighter once did for them. But given Kin’s ratio of real-world to sci-fi reliance, pulling this one off arguably had a much higher degree of difficulty.
Listing image by Lionsgate / Josh and Jonathan Baker
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