A tough, tender little movie, “The Retrieval” tells a story of divided souls wandering a divided land. It takes place in 1864, the year before the Civil War ended, and opens in the dead of night.
As cannons boom in the distance, a 13-year-old black boy, a seeming runaway, takes refuge in a barn guarded by a white woman with a long gun. Shortly after the boy settles in next to a few black fugitives — one silently hands him food — he slips out to alert his employers, white bounty hunters who quickly torch the barn and capture the fugitives, who fetch as much as $600 a head.
Money changes hands throughout “The Retrieval.” The boy, Will (Ashton Sanders), carries around a coin given to him by his long-gone father. With no family or home, he clings to it and to a man he calls uncle, Marcus (Keston John), a black mercenary. It’s unclear how they ended up working for the bounty hunters, led by the foreboding Burrell (Bill Oberst Jr.).
After the gang captures the fugitives, Burrell pays Marcus, who then tosses Will some coins. There’s pathos in how Will scrambles for his meager pay and also in his reluctance to feed the fugitives.
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Written, directed and edited by Chris Eska, “The Retrieval” is modest in means and narrative scope. Its heft comes from the moral awakening at its center, which involves the humanization of a black adolescent who, however nominally free, is captive to a system that reduces human relationships to financial transactions.