Sydney Freeland's well-regarded but seldom-seen 2014 directorial debut, Drunktown's Finest, was a somber look at American Indian identity issues that intertwined the stories of three Navajos: a young guy about to wash out of boot camp, a promiscuous transgendered woman, and a girl raised by white adoptive parents. She's finally made a follow-up for Netflix, Deidra & Laney Rob a Train, and it seems to have come from the opposite side of the universe.
Imagine a scruffy teenage version of Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid made for the Disney Channel—funny with a streak of poignance, the violence appropriately muffled, and, of course, a happy ending, and you'll be close to the mark. This is not said with derision or condescension or any of the other qualities dearest to the TV critic's heart. Deidra & Laney won't remake the world, but it's a fun 90 minutes of television.
The girls of the title are teenage sisters who (along with a much younger brother) find themselves on their own when their mother, Goldie, snaps during her shift at a big-box electronics store, hurling big-screen TVs into the parking lot while shrieking, "This is who I am!" There's no money for bail and, worse yet, Goldie doesn't want any; relieved to be free of the hassles of single-momdom, she's embracing the penal lifestyle. "A salad with every single meal!" she happily proclaims to the nonplussed kids.
Yet life without parental supervision turns out to be anything but an endless slumber party. Bills come in, even though money doesn't, and prospects are few for a teenagers living on the ass-end of a hardscrabble little Idaho town. (And literally on the wrong side of the tracks, too—trains rumble past, just a few feet from their back yard, at all hours of the day or night.) And their long-absent father is no help, though he'll be happy to take credit for whatever solution they come up with. "I was a mess when you were little," he boasts. "That helped you to learn for yourself."
Deidra, an honors student whose ability to launch an impromptu disquisition on free will vs. determinism has won the awe of her teachers if mostly the baffled contempt of her inbred classmates, tries selling homework, but there's not enough money in it. And nobody will take the girls seriously at the more traditional after-school job of peddling weed. With Child Protective Services making ominous noises about foster care, which would divide the kids into separate homes, Deidra and Laney decide to attempt something they've seen on TV—hopping the freight trains that run by their home and breaking into cargo containers.
For the most part, Deidra & Laney takes a light, Robin-Hoodish tone, its grim scenario leavened with wisecrack black humor, as when the school guidance counselor promises Deidra any help she needs with college applications because it will boost the counselor's dreams of transferring to "an inner school that's much nicer than this one." Watching the girls drawing up train-robbing checklists from do-it-yourself YouTube videos is hilarious. And, interestingly, there's no trace of the identity politics that fueled Drunktown's Finest; if the fact that Deidra and Laney are biracial prompts the other kids' animus toward them, it goes unmentioned, unlike the fact that they're dirt poor and have a wastrel dad and a nutcase/jailbird mom.
When a dark undertone does occasionally break through Deidra & Laney, it has to do not with ethnicity, gender or any other identity hot buttons, but battered kids paying the price for their parents' lousy DNA and worse choices. As Laney broods after being mousetrapped yet again by some old parental scandal, "I'm nobody because I'm meant to be nobody, and there's no point in trying." Replies Deidra: "You are not 'nobody.' You're a bad-ass who robs trains."
The redemptive power of felonies may be a dubious proposition, but Deidra & Laney gets an enormous boost in selling it from the two little-known actresses in the title roles. Ashleigh Murray, who plays Deidra, has little screen experience beyond her small role as the sleek and ambitious lead singer of Josie & The Pussycats on The CW's Riverdale. And Rachel Kelly Crow, who plays Laney, is better known for finishing in fifth place in the first season of Simon Cowell's bitchy talent show The X Factor than for her sparse acting resume.
But they both show remarkable range in Deidra & Laney. Their delivery of gags and even pratfalls is understated and on-target. And when the mood darkens, their desolation can be read in their faces so plainly that you could tear the volume control off your TV set without missing a thing.
Photo Credit: Netflix