It’s been more than 80 years since director Frank Capra cooked up the romantic archetype of two lovable youngsters, getting along a road trip. The exploits of awkward, flirty couples that started with It Happened One Night (1934) continued through French New Wave and maudlin dramas of Korean cinema. Although many modern Hollywood movies tend to overuse this archetype, the appeal for such a tale remains the same. When you combine actors who exude crackling chemistry, with a director who has a keen eye for detail and emotions, even an archaic storyline can offer a rewarding film experience. Indie filmmaker Adam Leon’s Tramps (2016) does exactly that. It takes small deviations from the well-trodden path. Moreover, it zeroes in on small, palpable emotions which feel like a breath of fresh air.
Tramps (distributed by Netflix) demands a certain level of suspension of disbelief to fully enjoy the protagonists’ journey.
Danny (Callum Turner) lives in a cramped Queens apartment with his Polish mother and small-time con-artist brother.
Adam Leon’s film may lack thematic depth, but he is adept at characterization and creating a tangible sense of place and time.
Danny helps his mother run a small gambling operation out of their apartment.
He works in a little Italian restaurant withholding dreams of becoming a chef.
Danny is joyfully cooking in his cramped kitchen when elder brother Darren rings up.
Darren is in a correctional facility and asks Danny to be his substitute and pull off a briefcase pick-up job.
Danny agrees to the job, pretending to be Darren.
He should just locate a specific car to receive the briefcase, travel in the car to a meeting point, and switch the briefcase for another package.
It’s a simple job and the employers are just non-threatening low-level hustlers.
Ellie (Grace Van Patten) knows there’s no big deal in doing this job.
Her background isn’t revealed earlier as much as Danny’s.
She is a tough-looking girl who needs the money to have a fresh start.
Ellie acts as the car driver. Danny drives with her to the subway station. A case of mistaken identity ruins the job.
It’s too late when he realizes he’s got the wrong bag and left the briefcase with a stranger.
Thankfully, there’s a name and address of the owner in the ‘wrong’ bag.
Accompanied by Ellie, he must travel to upstate New York to finish the botched mission and secure the pay.
Their happy-go-lucky trip is charged with beautiful, tender, small moments.
There’s glimpse of possible romance between them, yet the narrative doesn’t exclude the reality of life’s hard edges.
Adam Leon and co-writer/producer Jamund Washington’s script doesn’t have elaborate plot points, but infuses marvelous character moments.
Leon’s brilliant debut feature Gimme the Loot (2012) breaks main action to fill it up with small emotional interludes.
These vital moments are built from wholly understanding the character nature.
In Tramps, Leon and Washington take us through regular beats of a Hollywood classic romance.
Yet due to their sensible characterization, there’s a distinct feel to the narrative flow.
The most interesting aspect of Tramps lies in how Leon and DP Ashley Connor handle characters’ movement through limited space.
Similar to the films of Eric Rohmer or Richard Linklater, this is a film about people talking and moving across different locations.
Like those great filmmakers, Leon eschews travel montage to deftly focus on the movement of the couple through cities.
The method looks pleasing in both literal and figurative sense.
Exemplary songs and music splendidly capture the thriving energy of New York City.
Tramps is not just the story of young people stuck within a place, but also in life.
Their movement between different spaces (through cars and trains) promises a change – on both emotional and economical fronts.
Turner and Van Patten are charming enough to turn our attention from the thin, implausible nature of the plot.
They don’t have many pointed or endearing lines to utter. Much of the joy lies in observing Danny and Ellie’s efforts to hide their awkwardness and insecurities.
Or we could say that the pleasure doesn’t lie in what these actors say, but in those little smiles, teasing looks, or the eye roll.
Of course, films about mismatched pairs getting close aren’t new.
Nevertheless, it looks refreshing when perceived from the eyes of these two charismatic leads.
I particularly liked the final, ‘first kiss’ moment. It feels weird and a bit awkward, yet there’s authenticity and a palpable feeling in their expressions. Something we don’t experience in the passionate kisses in alleged romance films.
The film ends with a note of uncertainty. It doesn’t give any fixed promises to the viewers, but looks like a start of something good.
Tramps (83 minutes) is the kind of straightforward and delightful light-entertainment that’s worth watching after a rough day. Adam Leon’s vibrant direction and the lovely performances perfectly transcend the time-worn plot line.
By Arun Kumar