Delmar Washington’s well-intentioned sci-fi parable about racial profiling gets tripped up in the constraints of its budget.
This review is part of our coverage of the 2021 Tribeca Film Festival.
Ever since Get Out popularized the notion of exploring the struggles and tensions of Blackness in America through a genre lens, it’s been difficult to extricate its influence from many of its successors. This brings us to No Running, the feature film debut of Delmar Washington, which strains against what’s most assuredly a modest budget to explore a mild sci-fi spin on the phenomenon of racial profiling.
When we first see Jaylen Brown (Skylan Brooks), he’s stumbling out of a crashed car, with a stern-faced sheriff (Shane West) looking over him. Instinctually, by dint of our understanding of how these kinds of interactions go, we know things aren’t looking good for Jaylen.
But then the film rewinds to backtrack us through how we got here: Jaylan, along with his overworked mother (Rutina Wesley), are new to the chiefly-white town of Mount Arrow. They’re staying with the sister (Taryn Manning) of Jaylen’s abusive stepfather (whom they’ve recently escaped), but making the best of their new start: Jaylen even strikes up a friendship with a local girl named Amira (Clark Backo). But when she mysteriously disappears in a plume of blue light after a lakeside Halloween party, Jaylen — as the only witness — suddenly, predictably, becomes the prime suspect.
There’s little here to elevate the film beyond its good intentions.
In one respect, Tucker Morgan’s script deserves plaudits for keeping its sci-fi trappings firmly in the margins of No Running‘s broader exploration of the way Black youth are distrusted and profiled in America. Even before Amira’s disappearance, Morgan and Washington lace every interaction with that surface tension Jaylen (and most Black people occupying mostly white spaces) is highly attuned to. Brooks makes for a fine, intense lead, juggling an expected guardedness with the justifiable frustration that comes from being so comprehensively misjudged by everyone around him.
Unfortunately, most of his co-stars — especially Taryn Manning and, bizarrely, Blue Collar Comedy Tour vet Bill Engvall as a Randy-Quaid-in-Independence-Day-level alien kook — are left to flounder. West, in particular, feels lost, saddled with the racist cop beat, not to mention an unfortunate goatee; his cop is part of a long lineage of men in his family with a history of overt anti-Black violence and turning a blind eye to the town’s many disappearances. There’s an interesting angle to highlight the bone-deep connections between police and white supremacy, but the script doesn’t dig far below the surface there.
That said, all too often No Running tips its hand, due to a combination of Morgan’s clunkier bits of scripting and the inevitable restrictions of the budget. The Vast of Night handled a similar micro-budgeted alien abduction situation by keeping the little green men in the margins; while No Running has Vast beat on social commentary, it lacks the haunting visual invention of last year’s throwback thriller. Here, Washington renders scenes in a fairly matter-of-fact manner, pausing only to linger on an all-too-full bulletin board in the town convenience store or render some endearing confusion to Amira’s initial disappearance. But otherwise, there’s little here to elevate the film beyond its good intentions.