It would be nice to see this offbeat little movie get the sequel it wants and kind of deserves. The directors, Australian twins Jonathan and Josh Baker, have tried to stir four different film genres into one picture, with the key ingredient being teen sci-fi. This was bound to be a tough trick to pull off (the other genres are family drama, crime thriller and road movie), and there are in fact some problems of narrative balance, and of missing plot info that's possibly being held back for that maybe-who-knows sequel. But the picture is trying to do something a little different, and that's a rare thing, as you've probably noticed.
The story (expanded from a short film the Bakers made four years ago) is set in downbeat Detroit, where a 14-year-old boy named Eli (Myles Truitt) lives with his adoptive father, Hal (Dennis Quaid). Hal works in construction; he's a fond parent but very strict, and tight with money, too. Eli is a problem student at school, and he hustles for extra money by stripping copper wire out of abandoned buildings and selling it to scrapyards. Eli is black and his widower dad is white; a situation of mild interest that's never addressed. In fact, nothing at all is made of the movie's racial angle until the what-on-earth conclusion — and even then it's teasingly oblique.
We meet Hal and Eli just as Hal's biological son, Jimmy (Jack Reynor, of "Strange Angel"), is returning home from six years in prison. Although they're stepbrothers, Jimmy and Eli have never had much chance to bond. Now they're about to get a big one.
Despite being fresh out of the joint, Jimmy already has an ugly problem. He had protection while inside through the influence of a local crime boss named Taylor Bialik (James Franco in a neck tattoo and ratty mullet, channeling parts of the drug scuzz he played in "Spring Breakers"). Now Jimmy owes Taylor $60,000 for his services, and of course he doesn't have the money. Taylor has a suggestion.
Meanwhile, Eli is hunting for copper in a derelict factory when he comes upon a group of dead ... soldiers or something. (In their shiny black armor, they look like discarded ex-members of Daft Punk.) He also notices a large rectangular black device on the floor. He touches it and it beeps. Eli doesn't know this, but the beep is a signal, and he's just drawn someone's attention.
Taylor's money-making suggestion for Jimmy was a stickup. This went very wrong, with significant loss of life — although the $60,000 was obtained and stuffed in a bag. Now Jimmy has to leave town very quickly. He grabs the bag of cash, gathers up Eli, who brings along his mysterious device, and they hit the road, heading west for Lake Tahoe, their late mother's favorite place. (The missing mom is another dangling plot oddity.)
Jimmy doesn't really have it in him to be any kind of role model, so at one point he pulls off the road, parks in front of a seedy strip club (where nobody actually strips — hello PG-13!), and takes Eli inside. The mysterious weapon, however, stays in their vehicle.
In the course of getting drunk at the club, Jimmy hits it off with a young stripper named Millie (Zoe Kravitz), who's looking for a new direction in life and is about to find one. When the wasted Jimmy causes an altercation, the club owner calls in his goons. Eli runs outside to the vehicle, returns with his weapon, and impresses everybody on hand with its ability to blow out an entire wall with a single burst. Millie sees this as a good time to quit her crappy job, and she and Eli and Jimmy take off.
OK, now we know that this weapon — which only Eli can fire — is some kind of ray gun from outer space. And that the two new black-armored figures we see in a cutaway pursuing Eli and company on super-speedy motorcycles probably want it back and will do who-knows-what to get it. Taylor and his hoods, also on their trail, want the bag of money back, and it's pretty clear what they'll do to get that.
There's quite a bit more action — at a casino, then a police station — and then the finale arrives, pushing the story's sci-fi elements up front and center, and giving the film a surprising (I thought) new spin.
It must be said that the movie could have benefitted from giving Zoe Kravitz and her arresting blonde braids more to do; she's only kept around to be sweet and worried, and she's so much better than that. On the other hand, Myles Truitt is solid in his first feature; and Jack Reynor gives off such a strong Chris Pratt vibe that the movie gets a synthetic kick of fun just from the real Pratt almost being in it.
As teen sci-fi goes, "Kin" could be a disappointment for actual teens (of all ages). There's none of the buzz of boatloads of money being thrown around, none of the thrill of heedless excess. A bigger budget would surely help next time around, allowing the story to go ... I don't know, interstellar, maybe. I'd like to think there'll be a next time. But I've been wrong before, and recently.