Desperation, as a general rule, makes for good comedy.
For a “caper comedy,” it’s an absolute pre-requisite.
“Deidra & Laney Rob a Train” is fraught with desperation, real and comic.
Deidra (Ashleigh Murray of TV’s “Riverdale”) has it. She’s pretty much raising younger sister Laney (Rachel Crow) and brother Jet (Lance Gray) before flaky, self-absorbed mom (Danielle Nicolette) flips out one-time too many in the parking lot of the electronics store where she works.
“This is who I AM!” She smashes an HDTV, that gets classified as “domestic terrorism.” And she’s HAPPY in the joint, happy to ditch the three kids she wasn’t really raising..
“Every meal has a SALAD! ‘Salad law!'”
Super-organized, super-smart valedictorian Deidra sells homework and test prep assistant to classmates and fills her big wall calendar with the deadlines that loom larger with every passing day.
She’s missing school, struggling to get her scholarship applications filled out so that she can get into “any college that’s at least a two day drive from this Goddamned hillbilly town.”
That would be Shelbyville, Idaho. She’s from an interracial family, so her African American guidance counselor (Sasheer Zamata, funny) wants her to succeed, wants “one student I have here get into a college that doesn’t have ‘community’ in front of it.” The African American GC wants to get out of this GD hick town too, “to an inner city school, where things are…nicer,” herself. So, “I need you to get desperate!”
As the deadlines snowball, the responsibilities mount (Child Welfare Services is involved), bills roll in. “Genetic determinism” (apples not falling far from the tree) is a fresh worry brought up in sociology class.
What if she’s just like her crazy mom and no good dad? No child support dad (David Sullivan) is no help. But…he does work for the railroad.
And there are ways, a century and then some after the deaths of Butch and Sundance, to rob a train. Can a very smart teen and her always-in-her-shadow sister pull off a heist?
The whole voice-over “How to rob a train” montage is the first dull stretch in a comedy built on good casting, sparkling dialogue, brisk editing and yes, desperation. I mean, wouldn’t you feel anxious about your future if you mom was in prison? Especially after she drops one little dollop of “serious” about her past into one prison visit.
“Thought I could reach for something more,” Mom lectures. “‘More’ is not for us.”
The capers are childishly clever and amusingly tense, but it’s the high school and home life stuff that sings here.
Missi Pyle plays the etiquette/home ec teacher running the Miss Idaho Teen Pageant who arm-twists downtrodden Laney into entering.
Tim Blake Nelson is the railroad detective on the case — “Trying to think of a small word that means ‘ignoramus.'”
And Myko Oliver is the ex-boyfriend who works at a burger joint who pooh-poohs Deidra’s other get cash quick schemes.
“Sell weed? You broke up with me because I sell weed.”
A tip of the Pacific Western Railroad hat to the always-funny as a villain Nelson, and to screenwriter Shelby Farrell. Whatever else Netflix is doing to carve a niche in faintly-edgy teen films — crime, illegal substances, sexuality, profanity — starting with witty dialogue and likable characters.
“What do I want to be? You do realize that for thousands of years, that wasn’t a question. No Mesopotamian farmer asked his kid, ‘What do you want to be?'”
“Deidra & Laney” engage in a ferocious sibling catfight (“Bitch” always leads to a throw-down), struggle to cope with bills and school bullying.
The caper and its investigation robs the film of some of its momentum and fun. I’m inclined to say “Rob a Train” (rob “trains,” in point of fact) says what it has to say and does what it sets out to do in the first 45 minutes.
But this generally deft Sydney Freeland film gets more complex, sometimes comically so, for another 45. It also goes all sentimental.
Still, “Deidra & Laney Rob a Train” is that rare made-for-Netflix comedy clever enough, desperate enough, that it could have found an audience on the big screen.
MPAA Rating: TV-14, burglaries, sexual situations, profanity (a single F-bomb included)
Cast: Ashleigh Murray, Rachel Crowe, Missi Pyle,
Running time: 1:32