Written by Matt Barone (@MBarone)

It was a hot summer day back in 2011. Adam Leon, a first-time writer-director from New York City's Greenwich Village area, was hard at work on his debut feature, Gimme the Loot. With a cast comprised mostly of inexperienced, NYC natives, Leon's inaugural shotcaller effort was put together on a minuscule production budget of $65,000, half of which came directly from one "angel investor," the rest pouring from Leon's own pockets, as well as those of his parents. The reasonably minor price tag and compressed time-frame—cameras rolled for only 21 days, at almost 70 locations throughout the Bronx and Manhattan—enabled the then-29-year-old artist to complete his major—in his mind, at least—passion project: a naturalistic, vibrant, slice-of-life comedy about two teenage graffiti writers from the Bronx trying to scrounge up $500 in a day in order to gain access into Citi Field, in Queens, and bomb the New York Mets stadium's Home Run Apple.

On that particular day, Leon's leading lady, Tashiana Washington (who plays tomboy Sophia), was filming scenes involving her character chatting up a friend who's playing basketball at St. Nicholas Park, a scenic locale that borders Harlem, Manhattanville, and Hamilton Heights. Leon had lured extras to the set on the promise of "making $20, eating pizza, and playing basketball on a summer day." Taking a break from shooting, Leon and his crew were getting ready to eat lunch when someone ran up to him excitedly to alert him to something really special that was going down nearby: On a park bench, a bunch of kids were freestyle-rapping. Acting fast, Leon asked one of his assistant directors to grab the closest camera and rush over to shoot the playground cipher.

The scene appears around midway into the finished version of Gimme the Loot (opening in limited release today before a gradual nationwide rollout), and it's one of many charming moments in a lo-fi movie that's full of endearing performances and impressive resourcefulness. "That's the side of New York City that I've known and always loved," says Leon of the spontaneous rap session. "Even though we didn't plan for that moment, it's indicative of what we wanted this film to be: as real of a depiction of New York City kids as possible, but one that shows them having a good time and enjoying life. It's sad that, when you sit back and think about it, not many movies like that exist."

And that's what makes Gimme the Loot—which won the Grand Jury Prize at last year's SXSW Film Festival after making its world premiere there—such a noteworthy film: It's an anomaly within cinema's teen comedy sub-genre. Riding on a pair of first-rate acting turns from newcomer Ty Hickson (as Sophia's partner-in-mischief Malcolm) and the aforementioned Washington, Gimme the Loot never feels hokey. All of the characters, from the two colorful leads to the most seemingly insignificant of peripheral presences, seems real. The conversations are loose and candid. During one of their spirited strolls around New York City, Malcolm and Sophia discuss the proper uses of condoms. His opinion: "They should go around the tip, like a hat." Her typically snappy, sarcastic response: "What, like a fitted?"

The film's humor aside, Gimme the Loot earns its must-see status by treating its young protagonists with a rare kind of naturalism that favors easygoing humor over grandiose melodrama. Unlike past movies that've tried to tap into the pulse of NYC's inner city teens, Leon's picture isn't riddled with bullets, drug deals, darkness, or tragedy. Neither approach is less inauthentic, of course—crime and punishment are realities in New York, as they are in any other city. But in Gimme the Loot, the good times transpire with a casualness that feels refreshingly unfamiliar. "I wanted to tell a story that's set in this tougher world with these working-class kids who aren't necessarily miserable," says Leon, 31. "Never sell them out as people, be very authentic and true to who they are, but let them go on an adventure. Why do the kids from Superbad get to have all the fun?"

When Washington first read the script for Gimme the Loot, she was taken aback by how authentic the dialogue read, and by how much she recognized the characters from her own personal experiences with friends and family. "On my first audition, I noticed the producers but I didn't really notice Adam, and on my second audition they mentioned that he was the writer and director," says Washington. "I said to myself, 'Get out of here! This young white kid? He wrote these lines? He's not about that life.' But I quickly realized that he's just really talented. The fact that this cute, quirky white kid like Adam could write—I don't want to say 'hood film,' because it's not a hood film—an urban adventure, I would never think that he could relate to that or think about things like that."

It's not as if Leon was a total stranger to Gimme the Loot world. In his own teen years, Leon attended Hunter College High School, located in Manhattan's Upper East Side. "I went to a public school that was pretty diverse, with kids from all over the city, of all different races," he says. "That was a very formative experience. During those school years I was going all over the city, to every borough and every neighborhood."

Leon's interest in moviemaking, like most twenty- to thirty-something filmmakers, began with his first Star Wars viewing experience as a little boy. His love for film evolved greatly when he started at the University of Pennsylvania, where he pursued a liberal arts degree and spent most of his extracurricular time taking DVDs out of the school's rental library of 1,500-plus titles. And whenever he wasn't watching films, Leon was working on screenplays. In 2002, one year before graduation, he landed a production assistant job on Woody Allen's Hollywood Ending. Allen, impressed by the youngster's enthusiasm and instincts, brought Leon back for his next project, Melinda and Melinda, even inviting the 22-year-old aspiring filmmaker into the editing room to watch the nip-and-tuck process firsthand.

That, plus several post-college years spent working as a filmmakers' liaison for both the Tribeca Film Festival and New York Film Festival, gave Leon all of the motivation he needed to begin work on his own original material. In 2008, Leon co-directed and co-wrote his first narrative short, Killer, a NYC period piece set in 1989 about a graffiti artist trying to prove himself worthy of his peers' respect; thus, his predilection toward stories set within that world had been established years prior to his initial Gimme the Loot writing process in 2010. All he needed was the right hook. It came during a friend's bachelor party, one that kicked off inside Citi Field for a Mets game. After a slugger knocked one over the outfield wall, Leon saw the Home Run Apple rise up. "I just thought, That would be a great get for a graffiti writer."

By his own admission, Leon "tried [graffiti] once, but I was terrible." Which is why, to keep those Gimme the Loot components as believable as possible, he called upon renown Big Apple writer Greg "SP1" Lamarche to act as a consultant, even conducting a makeshift graffiti school for Hickson and Washington. The curriculum included lessons on the proper terminology, the culture's historical origins, and spray-can practice sessions. 

 
With the graffiti aspects solidified, Leon's next order of business in constructing Gimme the Loot was to formulate the strong, playful, and subtly nurturing relationship between Malcolm and Sophia. "I felt graffiti would be a great way to tell this story about a boy and a girl who love each other and have this partnership that's not necessarily romantic," says Leon. "They might have a crush on each other, but that's not the point of the movie. It's a love story, but not in the sense of, 'Are they going to hook up?'"

It didn't hurt that he could write directly for Malcolm by simply looking at a friend. For Killer, Leon had sent his casting director out to handpick kids off the street and ask them if they'd want to audition. One such anonymous teen was Hickson, who was skateboarding in the Lower East Side when he was approached. Hickson's co-starring role in Killer led to a close off-camera bond with Leon, and when it came time to start writing his first feature, the older upstart created Gimme the Loot's Malcolm specifically for his younger pal.

 
I wanted to tell a story that's set in this tougher world with these working-class kids who aren't necessarily miserable. Why do the kids from Superbad get to have all the fun? - Adam Leon
 

"I could tell right away that Adam had me in mind the whole time," says Harlem native Hickson, 20. "The character reflected me at 15 and also some of Adam's personality traits. We're so much alike in a lot of ways. The part of the character I identified with the most is being out on my own and wanting that independence, and also not taking things seriously. When I was younger, I was very delusionally optimistic about certain things in life, so it was weird doing the movie because, by the time we shot it, I'd grown up mentally a lot, so I had to kind of revert and bring myself back to how I was in high school."

Finding Sophia, however, wasn't as quite as easy. Leon met with over 500 hungry, untested actresses before he first encountered Washington, a SAG-card-holding newbie. From ages 4 through 12, the Fresh Meadows, Queens, resident was signed to the Ford modeling agency, for which she did commercial print and catalog work for brands like Baby Phat and Gap. As she matured, her height remained the same, hurting her chances to advance into the fickle, certain-size-required runway game. Commercial acting gigs and voice-over assignments kept her busy until she auditioned for Leon.

"When I read Gimme the Loot, I was impressed because it wasn't like any other character I'd ever auditioned for," says Washington, 20. "Sophia was a tomboy, and everything else I auditioned for was either the girlfriend, the cute one, or the victim, just these very feminine roles. When I saw this, I said, 'Yes, people can see that I'm a real actress and that I have talent and brains.' Sophia is almost the complete opposite of me; we are nothing alike. I took it as a challenge."

For inspiration, Washington—a self-professed "girly girl"—took cues from her cousins. "Instead of wearing dresses and shoes, they would wear Jordans, jeans, and T-shirts, whether they were doing graffiti or just going out and partying. They had the leeway to do whatever they wanted to do and curse as much as Sophia does in the movie. They had the ability to live that life: young, wild, and free. I never had that, but I would see that and live vicariously through my cousins. I got to live that wild life when I made this film."

As Leon puts it, Washington is "a glamorous sex-bomb of a girl in real life." One, it's worth noting, who regularly stuns those who've seen Gimme the Loot whenever they catch sight of her in person. Elegant and soft-spoken, she's a far cry from Sophia, a baggy-shirt-wearing firecracker who, at one point in the film, calls two large men "bitches" for denying her entry into a bodega from behind its glass door. "It's amazing when we get to bring her out for Q&As," says Leon. "I wish we could do a Q&A after every screening of this movie. It's a compliment to the movie, but it's less of a compliment to the filmmakers. People think we just found these kids and pointed cameras at them, but what we did was we worked with great actors."

It's a common misconception that, in its own way, is greatly beneficial to Gimme the Loot's creative success. Critics, who've unanimously praised the film, have written about it using compliments like "charmingly lackadaisical," "unpretentious," and "lovingly handmade," descriptions that validate all of Leon's efforts and intentions. It’s a welcoming motion picture, an 80-minute hangout with a couple of very likable kids who legitimately seem like they've been best buds for years. As Sophia chastises the crass Malcolm for so openly discussing the subject of wet dreams with her (“You don’t talk like that to a lady, Malcolm. You’re mad disrespectful.”), their camaraderie shines through.

It’s important, however, to not lose sight of the film’s biggest strength: Amidst all of the fun, laughs, and hijinx, Gimme the Loot speaks to a very specific New York City experience, one that’s widely shared, deeply felt, and uncommonly captured. "A lot of times in films that are based on New York, you'll see Saks Fifth Avenue and it's something like The Devil Wears Prada, but you don't get to see a real New Yorker's New York," says Washington. "We don't necessarily eat at a high-end restaurant every day in Times Square—we have our little in-the-cut spots where we get pizza, or Grey's Papaya where we get hot dogs. There are so many nooks and crannies of New York that don't get shown on film. I think that out-of-towners can enjoy Gimme the Loot because they can learn about these different sides of the city, but what really makes me happy is that real New Yorkers can be like, 'I know that spot. I was there yesterday! That's the New York that I know.'"

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Written by Matt Barone (@MBarone)