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Brothers in arms – ‘Kin’

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It’s always interesting to watch a feature debut. Seeing first-time directors and/or writers take their initial bow in the world of mainstream cinema … it’s bearing witness to the realization of what is almost certainly a lifelong dream. Maybe it’s an effort that promises future excellence. Maybe it’s even a fully-formed masterpiece. But really, it’s likely to be flawed and uneven, alternating quality with rookie mistakes.

The new film “Kin” definitely falls into that last category.

The movie – directed by twin brothers Jonathan and Josh Baker and based on their own 2014 short film “Bag Man” – is an ambitious effort, an attempt to bring family drama and science fiction together. Unfortunately, while there are shining examples from both ends of the spectrum, the combination never really meshes the way it needs to, despite its surprisingly robust cast and intriguing concept.

Eli (Miles Truitt, TV’s “Queen Sugar”) is a teenager living in Detroit. He’s struggling at school and at home; his mother died a year ago, but neither he nor his father Hal (Dennis Quaid, “A Dog’s Purpose”) have really gotten over it. He spends his time scavenging for scrap metal in abandoned buildings, hustling to make money.

In the course of his search, Eli stumbles upon a weapon, a technologically advanced gun unlike anything he has ever seen before. The weapon’s origins are otherworldly; Eli’s not at all sure what it is or how it works.

Complications continue when Eli’s brother Jimmy (Jack Reynor, “Detroit”) returns home after a six-year stint in prison. Jimmy owes a lot of money to a local gangster type named Taylor Balik (James Franco, “Future World”), who will happily kill him if he can’t come up with the cash.

Efforts to get that cash lead to Jimmy and Eli taking to the road, fleeing the consequences of Jimmy’s ill-conceived actions. But it’s only during a stop at a club – where they meet a dancer named Milly (Zoe Kravitz, “Rough Night”) – that the brothers discover just how powerful a weapon they’ve got on their hands.

As they drive west, Eli and Jimmy start to build their brotherly relationship; they get to know one another in a way that wasn’t possible before Jimmy went away. But as the secrets pile up and their pursuers begin to close in, it’s unclear whether their relationship will survive.

Or if they will.

The Baker twins clearly have some talent. “Bag Man” was a good enough calling card to convince Lionsgate to pony up a studio budget for an expansion of the story. And there’s no denying that they’ve got visual flair; they bring their story (Daniel Casey wrote the screenplay, building it around the short film’s script) to larger life.

There are some issues. There’s a muddiness that is tough to escape. Is it a family drama with elements of science fiction? Or is it a sci-fi story that happens to feature family drama? Sometimes, stylistic ambiguity works, but here, the lack of clarity is more of a hindrance. Also, pacing is a concern through a good chunk of the film’s middle.

That being said, while the elements don’t necessarily blend as they should, the individual pieces of “Kin” actually pretty good. The focus on family dynamics leads to some engaging and emotionally impactful moments. The sci-fi action stuff starts slowly and escalates nicely, culminating with a fantastic climactic scene featuring a top-shelf cameo.

And let’s talk about that cast. It’s not easy for a kid to bear the brunt of the narrative weight in a film, but Truitt does an admirable job. His Eli is a smart, savvy kid who has a lot of trust issues; he plays that reluctance to open up beautifully. Reynor’s Jimmy could have easily veered into the realm of cliché, but the actor does a nice job of creating a rounded personality, a man likeable despite his many flaws. Much of the success “Kin” does achieve comes from the charming chemistry between these two.

But it’s a hell of a supporting group as well – a better ensemble than you’d expect from this kind of movie. You’ve got Quaid doing his grizzled blue-collar dad thing. Kravitz could have gone standard-issue “stripper with a heart of gold,” but instead brings a soulful humor to her portrayal of Milly. Hell, Carrie Coon is here for reasons that defy understanding a little. Oh, and rest assured, I didn’t forget James Franco, who is clearly bound and determined to make his decision-making process as opaque and confusing as possible. He plays it straight and he’s clearly enjoying himself.

“Kin” isn’t a bad movie. As a debut studio feature, it’s actually got a lot going for it. It’s not perfect, of course, but debuts never are unless you’re Orson Welles. There’s no doubt that we’ll be seeing more of the Baker twins going forward; these guys are good. Yes, it’s a movie that never really makes up its mind with regards to what it wants to be, but there’s enough here to offer a pleasant enough diversion for a couple of hours.

[3 out of 5]

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