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NEWPORT BEACH FILM FESTIVAL 2022 REVIEW! In the seedy realm of the game of keno – an offshoot of pool – Diana (Lili Simmons) is a mystery. Young and beautiful, she stands out in the sleazy underworld of keno that largely consists of lecherous old men that would sell their mothers for a nickel. It’s thereby no surprise that she turns heads when she saunters into the bustling, underground keno house in rural Georgia run by Nick (Kim Coates), a well-connected organizer of keno players and high-stakes games.

Just what is she doing there, and why does Diana agree to assist Nick in a scheme to use her playing ability and physical allure to take the keno-playing world for a ride? In writer-director Tom Schulman’s Double Down South, we get answers to these questions. We also get a drama-filled sports film of sorts anchored by magnificent performances from Simmons, Coates, and Igby Rigney as the affable Little Nick.

Much of the film takes place around keno tables as Diana plays against (and beats) various odd members of the keno community. Consistently underrated because of male chauvinistic tendencies or a distraction because of her appearance, she accumulates a high winning percentage against the best keno players in the region. Eventually, though, along with Little Nick, she reluctantly agrees to take part in a cheating scheme against Beaumont DuBinion (Justin Marcel McManus), a smooth-talking keno champion with whom the elder Nick (Coates) has previously had a violent past. This harrowing sequence will serve to reveal much that was previously hidden.

“…Diana agree[s] to assist Nick in a scheme…to take the keno-playing world for a ride.”

Simmons is special in Double Down South. Beneath her icy exterior is a character with a complicated past that becomes more apparent as the film progresses. Tough as nails, she’s more than just a piece of eye candy for the collection of overweight men to gawk around the keno tables. This is her most substantial role to date, and it’s one that should open a lot of doors for the young actor. Her pairing with Coates, another smart piece of casting, is the highlight of the film. He’s delightfully slimy as Nick, and his performance brings to mind some great performances of the past, notably that of Ian McShane in Deadwood.

Schulman does an excellent job of orchestrating the complex relationships at play. He withholds crucial information about Diana until late (although a few blink-and-you’ll-miss-it shots of the character provide some clues). Still, her contentious professional relationship with the deceitful Nick provides a great deal of tension. This contrasts wonderfully with how she works with Little Nick, an impressionable young man obviously smitten by Diana. Throughout the story, he looks out for Diana, warning her not to trust the older Nick.

I never thought I’d be enraptured by a movie centered around a billiards-adjacent game, but in Double Down South, Schulman knows enough to trust his excellent cast to suck the audience in. Even for those not down for such representations of the Deep South, most of us will get a thrill in watching Simmons kick proverbial a*s with a pool cue. This is a hidden gem, one that we shouldn’t sleep on.

Double Down South screened at the 2022 Newport Beach Film Festival.