"More's not for us," dejected teenager Laney (Rachel Crow) observes while visiting her incarcerated mother, Marigold (Danielle Nicolet), in Deidra & Laney Rob a Train. Laney and her sister, Deidra (Ashleigh Murray) have been left in charge of running the household and paying bills after Marigold lands in jail after destroying televisions in the Best Buy-knockoff where she works. "No, baby, I don't think it is," Marigold replies. And that's just how it feels to watch Deidra & Laney: Even though there's plenty to like, there's a nagging sense that there should have been more.
The first half-hour or so of the movie – in which we meet Deidra (valedictorian high-school senior who sells test answers to classmates for extra cash) and Laney (shy middle sibling who struggles to stand out), see their mom get carted off to jail, and watch as they come up with a plan to raise money for bail and bills by stealing goods off the freight trains that pass by their house – moves like a well-oiled machine, balancing plot, character, humor and pathos. But instead of a black comedy with some subtext about the small victories of the working poor against the emotionless, unyielding march of capitalism, Deidra & Laney quickly descends into all-too-predictable family farce.
That's not to say that there aren't things to like about the movie. Murray and Crow as the titular sisters are a notch or two above most teen actors as far as charisma goes. And SNL's Sasheer Zamata steals every scene she's in as an ambitious guidance counselor whose only hope for career advancement is getting Deidra into college. But subplots about the sisters rekindling a relationship with their estranged, lovable screw-up father, Chet (David Sullivan); Laney competing in a teen beauty pageant against a vicious frenemy; and an investigation into the train robberies by an overzealous railway detective (Tim Blake Nelson), are all presented so broadly that they detract from the originality of the premise.
Nelson, a fine character actor, is particularly misused here. His cartoonish portrayal of Truman, the bumbling detective in charge of tracking down the mysterious train robbers, is straight out of an ABC Family made-for-TV movie. Goofily clad in khaki shorts and a fanny pack, he dismisses questioning Deidra, despite her matching the physical appearance of one of the two suspects caught on blurry security footage, simply because she's the valedictorian. Presumably, the scene is played for laughs, but the jokes never quite hit, which is a problem that pervades most of the film.
This is director Sydney Freeland's second feature about teens stuck in small Western towns taking extreme chances to try to better their lives, but while 2014's Drunktown's Finest took its subjects' problems seriously, Deidra & Laney tries to make light of them. The result feels tone-deaf at best. With this talented a cast and such an intriguing premise, a little more empathy could have made Deidra & Laney Rob a Train so much more.