“Everything stupid,” thirteen-year-old Dayveon (Devin Blackmon) says at the beginning of Amman Abbasi’s impressive debut film, Dayveon. Dayveon lives in a rural Arkansas town, where he is having a hard time overcoming the recent shooting death of his beloved older brother, Trevor (Errick Tillar). The wayward, disillusioned adolescent lives with his sister, Kim (Chasity Moore), and her gentle giant of a boyfriend, Brian (Dontrell Bright), but when Brian reaches out to him, Dayveon runs off. He is taken in by the local Bloods gang, led by Mook (Lachion Buckingham, who also served as a producer) and Country (Marquell Manning), who take him and his best friend, Brayden (Kordell “KD” Johnson), on a convenience store robbery that goes wrong, but even that does not deter Dayveon from staying on the bad track, angry at a world that has let him down. Despite knowing better, Dayveon continues hanging out with the gang, leading to a moment of truth that will determine his future.
Shot by Dustin Lane in a cinéma vérité style using natural sound and light and handheld cameras, Dayveon was partially inspired by the HBO documentary Gang War: Banging in Little Rock and Abbasi’s experience working on Craig and Brent Renaud’s four-part Al-Jazeera series Fight for Chicago. Abbasi, who cowrote Dayveon with Steven Reneau and composed the score, did extensive research for the project, workshopping script ideas at a boot camp for troubled youth and casting nonprofessional first-time actors who collaborated on the mood and dialogue to enhance the reality of the story. The danger is indeed palpable; the gunshot wound that Brayden shows Dayveon is not fake, as Johnson actually got shot away from the set during the making of the film. The seventy-five-minute film, which follows in the tradition of such poignant dramas as David Gordon Green’s George Washington and Lance Hammer’s Ballast — in fact, Gordon Green is an executive producer on Dayveon, along with James Schamus (Ang Lee, Todd Haynes) and Danny McBride (Eastbound & Down, Vice Principals), among others — moves at a slow, deliberate pace, with Blackmon adding mumbled voiceover narration that further reveals his frustrations, living in a society that offers little hope. Abbasi, whose Pakistani family settled in Arkansas when he was nine, goes slightly astray in the film’s last fifteen minutes, falling into a trap that is too simplistically resolved, but Dayveon is still a tense, involving tale with a unique and compelling personality.