On television, “Kin” could have been a successful backdoor pilot about two estranged brothers, two motorcycle-riding Daft Punk copycats, a heavily-tattooed James Franco, and the road trip that brings them all together.
On film, it has all of the weird, irresponsible potential of a “Boondock Saints” franchise, insisting that there’s something substantial, cultural climate be damned, in its punky adolescent fantasy about an orphaned black kid who finds a laser pistol. Featuring Dennis Quaid, Zoe Kravitz and Carrie Coon in roles that define “thankless” as Jack Reynor (“Sing Street”) and newcomer Myles Truitt (“Queen Sugar”) soldier bravely through misshapen rhythms of quasi-futuristic fraternal bonding, “Kin” feels like a level up for its co-directors from a short film that was too ambitiously envisioned as a franchise.
Truitt plays Elijah Solinski, the adopted son of Hal (Quaid) and brother of Jimmy (Reynor), an ex-con whose recent stint in prison racked up $60,000 in debt to Taylor Bolek (Franco), a local gun runner. Suspended from school for fighting, Elijah earns money stripping wiring from the walls of local buildings, where one day he finds what looks like a laser pistol, and only he seems to be able to operate it.
Hal finds out and goes apoplectic; he doesn’t want his adopted son to follow Jimmy’s path, and he’s replaced tenderness and understanding with strict discipline in the wake of his wife’s death. But while doling out a life lesson to Elijah in the hopes of keeping him on the straight and narrow, Hal intercepts Jimmy and Taylor stealing from his safe, and in an ensuing firefight Jimmy, gets out — but Hal doesn’t.
With Taylor hot on their heels, Jimmy tells Elijah that they’re going on a family vacation, and Hal will join them later. Making off with his father’s money, the two of them head towards Lake Tahoe and begin to bond, simultaneously crossing paths with Milly (Kravitz), a stripper happy to liberate herself from an unhappy job. But as the authorities begin to investigate the robbery at Hal’s office, Jimmy grows less and less sure how to tell Elijah that their father is dead, especially given the fact that Taylor is determined to kill them even if they aren’t apprehended by police.
But after Elijah uses the laser pistol to get the trio out of a jam, it alerts two mysterious leather-clad strangers to their location, leading to an intense confrontation — between the three fugitives, Taylor and his crew, the cops, and these new pursuers — that has ramifications far deeper than Jimmy, or especially Elijah, could ever imagine.
Notwithstanding the questionable optics of a 14-year-old black kid wielding (what looks like) a toy gun while cops chase him across the country, most of the race-related issues in “Kin” are either driven by naïveté or overshadowed by much more significant narrative or performance problems. Primarily, there’s the issue of an adopted kid, Elijah, whose birth parents he never knew, raised by an adoptive mother who died and a father who seems pathologically incapable of compassion, who them himself dies. Jimmy is one of those movie screw-ups where everything he does is really not so bad, uh, except for getting their father killed, and then deceiving his little brother about it for several days, not long after his mother died.
The movie at least acknowledges that this is big news, but first-time writer-directors Jonathan and Josh Baker scarcely seem aware of the larger psychological repercussions of either Elijah’s background or his current circumstances, and they handle Jimmy’s revelation in such a cowardly way that somehow, by comparison, Taylor is the only character in the ensemble who emerges with any dignity.
After “Transformers: Age of Extinction” and “Sing Street,” Reynor has peaked as an actor playing ne’er-do-well characters we’re supposed to love, and here he just seems like a complete a-hole: after being directly responsible for Hal’s death, he steals his money, spends it until he gets in trouble, steals some more, and shepherds Elijah through an odyssey of trouble for which he is not in any way ready, laser pistol or no.
Truitt demonstrates a quiet intensity that audiences will immediately identify with, and which promises terrific things from the young actor, but he’s forced to make believable a sequence of events that barely seem interconnected; the Baker brothers want this to be both a gritty family drama and a sci-fi-laced adventure, but through no fault of Triutt’s — and in fact, despite his admirable effort — the underlying emotions simply do not track. Meanwhile, there’s little else to do while Kravitz is on screen than wonder why someone as talented as she sought the role of a stripper-turned-babysitter whose biggest scene involves taking a personal inventory of abuse to bond with a teenager.
Then of course there’s the Daft Punk duo, mysterious individuals riding motorcycles like a couple of maniacs and whose involvement in Elijah’s journey hints at a wild and operatic future storyline should this first film be a success. But much like Carrie Coon, who shows up as the film is ending to provide one female character who isn’t either dead, a stripper or a junkie, the Bakers seem to have telegraphed their expectations of a bigger and more impressive ending without thinking enough about the journey to get there.
Ultimately, “Kin” probably could have worked as a straightforward drama about two troubled brothers and the parental deaths that bonded them, or maybe it would have succeeded as a “Flight of the Navigator”-style road trip that slowly and skillfully takes on mythic sci-fi proportions. But its chocolate-and-peanut-butter combination of the two feels disjointed and unsatisfying, mostly because it never feels complete or thought through enough, either as a story or more crucially, an emotional experience — which is exactly what audiences would need in order to want to see more.
For the record: A previous version of this story misspelled Myles Truitt’s name.