Every once in a while, something that looks and talks and acts like a duck is actually a growth-stunted goose, and the same goes for movies, especially during Hot January. August isn’t just a dumping ground for all the bad horseshit that studios know is bad, it’s also a time when unmarketable but pretty decent movies get put out to pasture so that losses can be recorded, blame assigned and everybody can move on. Case in point: the science-fiction thriller Kin, a feature-length adaptation of the short film Bag Man by Jonathan and Josh Baker (who also directed this) that caused a bit of a bidding war back at TIFF in 2016 for the feature film rights. It’s release date and lack of meaningful marketing might clue you into how the studio thinks of that decision now, but don’t be fooled: For the discerning sci-fi fan, there’s more than enough here to satisfy you. While not a great movie, Kin is better than most of the shitty fare we’ve received over the past couple of weeks, and it may very well be worth your time.
Elijah Solinski (a great Myles Truitt) is a high schooler in crisis after his mom passed away. He’s getting into fights at school and stealing scrap from the ruins of buildings out in old Detroit for petty cash, while his father (Dennis Quaid) struggles to connect with him in the only way that he can. Their lives are upended when Elijah’s brother Jimmy (Jack Reynor) returns home from a stint in the pen for robbery. Jimmy’s a devil-may-care hell raiser with a heart of gold, but he’s made some big mistakes in his life, including one that might put his family in danger: He owes $60k in protection money to a gang headed up by Taylor (James Franco) who kept him safe on the inside. He doesn’t have it, of course, so he tries to get a loan from his dad, who turns him down.
Meanwhile, Elijah stumbles across what seems to be a futuristic weapon in an abandoned building, alongside the corpses of men wearing odd battle armor, and he takes it for himself. Elijah’s dad discovers that he’s been stealing from abandoned buildings, and takes him to his job site, where he discovers Jimmy, Taylor and Taylor’s men trying to break into the safe. Things get hairy, and the dad gets shot in the ensuing struggle, along with Taylor’s brother. Jimmy and Myles skip town, the high schooler unaware that his father’s been murdered, and the two embark on a road trip that will wind up testing their relationship to the limit. And that’s before the two mysterious armored figures come looking for the gun, or before Taylor manages to exact his vengeance.
The Baker brothers have a knack for atmosphere, and it shifts smartly depending on where the story takes the characters. From burned out office-buildings in Detroit, where Elijah first finds the gun while scrapping, to a neon-streaked strip club near Colorado where the brothers meet Milly (the wonderful Zoe Kravitz), a witty stripper with a sad past looking for a new line of work, to a fluorescent-lit police station where the film’s final act unfurls in a mess of apocalyptic violence, these places aren’t necessarily unique but become interesting when strung together in the service of this particular story. This is a melancholy world, one well-familiar to a lot of people, where bright spots are few and far in-between, where family is one potential moment of life and levity that’s always in danger of being snuffed out by evil.
The film wears its influences proudly on its sleeve — most prominently from the Terminator films (directly lampshaded when Elijah plays the T2 arcade game at a diner while on the lam), whose neon grime and grit is evoked in several sequences, including the assault on the police station — but it’s the smaller bits and pieces of color that make it a bit more unique than something like Stranger Things. If you had told me that Kin contained references to, of all things, Andrew Dominik’s Killing Them Softly, I would have called you crazy, but sure enough, it’s there. And what results from all of this may not be wholly original, but it is compelling and unique enough to intrigue a viewer. Plus, it features an excellent Mogwai score, with the Scottish band reaching Tangerine Dream heights previously unknown to them.
But it’s in the relationship between the brothers in the film — and by that, I mean all of them, including Franco — that make it special enough to recommend. Sure, the film leans into cliche a number of times, especially with every scene involving Dennis Quaid, but Reynor and Truitt are smart and capable enough to subvert expectations by leaning into their character’s natures: Elijah just wants to be loved and to be paid attention to, which Jimmy gives him on their road trip, and Jimmy wants to escape his problems and keep his brother safe in the process, almost entirely motivated by guilt. They both have to learn what it means to be responsible — Elijah via the ray-gun, Jimmy by taking care of his brother — and there’s a certain amount of tragedy in seeing Jimmy almost fuck everything up for the two of them through his horrible choices. Franco, mourning the death of his brother via a country-wide crime spree, is able to find the emptiness and sadness in his man of violence, brought to a new petulant low by the tragedy in his life.
The cliches extend to the storyline, as well, but they’re tied into the themes intelligently enough that a particularly egregious one near the end of the film is smoothed over both by smart writing and a well-timed and astonishing cameo, which brings meaning to Elijah’s existential suffering. Kin will not be the best science-fiction film you see this year, nor is it going to rank highly on anybody’s list, but it’s intelligent, beautifully-acted, and occasionally quite surprising. It’s about as close as we’ll come to a sci-fi Good Time for kids, and that it’s not awful is an achievement in and of itself.