If the Coen Brothers were making teen crime movies for Nickelodeon, they might look something like Deidra & Laney Rob a Train. Netflix's oddest original movie yet is a slick, stylish, and off-the-wall combination of colorful characters and criminal hijinks, told with a light touch and snappy tone. Even if the stakes are low and the consequences minor, sophomore director Sydney Freeland gets two wonderfully charged performances by leads Ashleigh Murray (CW's Riverdale) and multi-talented Rachel Crow as sisters who resort to desperate measures to keep their family together.
Freeland, a transgender Native American filmmaker, hit Sundance with a splash a few years ago with Drunktown's Finest, and she's stepped up her visual game considerably. In particular the opening credits are a blast, with each word getting its own unique freeze-frame display. So, as you can imagine, the last word ends with a bouncing toy train, a sign of what's to come. Murray and Crow play desperate Idaho siblings Deidra and Laney, whose rather modest home sits within shouting distance of a railroad used by slow-moving, consumer good-filled freight trains. As daughters to single mother Marigold (Danielle Nicolet, seen occasionally on CW's The Flash), they understandably freak out when she's arrested for going postal at "Good Buy" and smashing a big screen TV. Deidra, the whip smart facilitator of the duo who makes money by selling homework to fellow students, has another get rich quick scheme in mind.
Shouldering the responsibility to take care of Laney, their young and barely audible brother Jet (Lance Gray), all while avoiding a pesky social worker, Deidra puts her college aspirations aside to try and first bail mom out of prison. To do that she comes up with an idea to rob those freight trains and sell the goods on the black market, or whatever passes for a black market in Idaho. She enlists the reluctant Laney, and eventually their deadbeat dad, Chet (David Sullivan) who knows a thing or two about such underhanded exploits. Things start off poorly (a microwave and detergent is all they copped the first time), but eventually the two girls move on to electronics and other high-end gear, using a stuffed teddy bear as a visual marker. In the process they attract the attention of an incompetent and dangerously obsessive railroad detective (Tim Blake Nelson) who wants to bring them down, assuming he's dealing with experienced lifelong thieves.
The whole thing is rather silly and is played as such. Nelson's detective is basically a villain from a Disney movie; he might as well be twirling a mustache but instead he's vaping and wearing a fanny pack. The girls have outside problems that feel like they could've come from an episode of Saved by the Bell, but Laney's evolution from quiet middle child into assertive woman is believable thanks to Crow's performance. For instance, Laney has been entered into a school beauty pageant that puts her at odds with her former best friend, who wants the crown for herself. But through her experiences there she begins to come out of her shell, which gives her the confidence to step out of Deidra's considerable shadow. It causes some tension between the sisters, the only bit of genuine tension the movie allows for. Murray seems a little too stiff for the role but she really opens up when paired with Crow. Together they behave like sisters who are close in age but couldn't be more different. They fight, verbally and physically, they make up, then they stand up for one another. Both are stricken by a belief that they were never meant to be anything, that failure is in their DNA, but the movie's big theme is overcoming such limited expectations.
Through bright colors and some familiar but well-placed visual cues, Freeland keeps the energy as high as she can, but eventually the film does lose steam. You wish there was a little bit more to the characters that surround Deidra and Laney, to help flesh out this zany cartoon world they exist in. Their brother Jet is barely a factor even though everything the girls are doing is to protect him. Shelby Farrell's script sets up SNL's Sasheer Zamata with a couple of killer scenes as Deidra's laser-focused guidance counselor, but you leave wanting her to have more.
This was the final film I saw at Sundance this year when I was desperately in need of a palette cleanser to wash all of those"important" movies away. It did the trick and my festival ended on a high note, which is more than I can say for a lot of other years in Park City. For those looking for playful family-friendly entertainment with a heavy dose of girl power, Deidra & Laney Rob a Train may be the fun ride you're looking for, and now you can do it from the comfort of your own home.
Rating: 3 out of 5