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“Even when I dream, I dream about being chased.” So says Brandon (Jahking Guillory), a 15-year-old kid in the ghettos outside of Oakland, a smaller-than-average boy who isn’t popular, has no money, and dreams of life in the isolation of outer space. Most of his problems, at least how he perceives them, stems from his shoes. His are old, beaten, generic brand and therefore, he is invisible. He has two best friends, bigger boys with income, but he remains in their peripheral.
The shoe of choice in his neighborhood is the Air Jordan, most especially the vaunted red and black Air Jordan One, the original. Brandon believes to own a pair would be the ticket he needs to be get inside, wherever that might be. Tired of being on the fringes, he desperately seeks them out and soon stumbles upon a seller on the street, getting cash for “kicks” out of his van. Down to his last pennies, he gives the man all he has and finally gets his dream shoes. The next morning, strutting to a new beat, he tosses his old pair to the wires of the utility pole in front of his house. Sure enough, he gets noticed right away, especially by a pretty girl who is drawn to the sneakers and the reputation they earn the wearer.
You can guess what happens. These shoe also lure a small gang of thugs led by a Flaco (Kofi Siriboe), who beats Brandon and takes his Jordans, his crew snapping cell phone pics and video while berating him. They leave him in the street, bruised and in his socks. Now with no shoes, no dignity, and no hope for pulling himself up, he goes on a journey into the abyss to try and get them back.
Directed by Justin Tipping, in his full-length film debut, Kicks is an astonishing work, as relevant and important as the early films of John Singleton and Spike Lee. Framed and presented like an odyssey, it travels the young Brandon and his friends through a labyrinth of adventures that bring them face-to-face with a world both unfamiliar and terrifying, all the while posing the question of why? How are a pair of shoes this important? But of course, shoes are only a metaphor in the larger tale, the real question is how far will you go for what you believe? For Brandon, very far.
The difference here, compared to many in the genre is the film’s dreamlike presentation. Brandon exists in a semi-hallucinatory state throughout, “seeing” a spacesuit-wearing astronaut who first appears in shades of haze before becoming fully defined as the story progresses, a silent guide that is both an inspiration and then much more. Tipping also transitions his action with long stylistic so-motion images, giving each stage of Brandon’s adventure a fantastical feel. These chapters are marked by title cards labeled by hip hop and rap quotes, sometimes the songs themselves overplaying as the characters evolve.
Tipping makes consequences the central theme, giving context to the minor things that become even larger once we meet all the players. Flaco isn’t just an empty villain, even if he starts that way. He is carefully drawn and his motivations and place in this violent, reactionary world have meaning, sometimes surprisingly so. That the journey to him is interspersed with moments that reflect that, give the confrontation in the end twice the impact.
The cast are mostly unknowns but all deliver with great conviction, with Guillory a star in the making. But it is Tipping’s direction and attention to details that make the larger impression, with smart characters that have tremendous depth. Despite the ethereal sheen that layer the film, there is an authenticity to it that makes for some rousing and sometimes terrifying moments. Like a nature documentary of predators and prey, we’re never sure when it’s going to turn dark, which is entirely the point, and while there is some jarring violence, it is never exploited or made to feel romanticized. It is just part of their lives.
Kicks is a hugely promising debut for Tipping and while it’s brimming with style and humor and menace, it never loses sight of the characters, pulling us in from the gripping opening images to the final frame. Don’t hesitate to put this on your list.
Director: Justin Tipping
Writers: Joshua Beirne-Golden, Justin Tipping
Stars: Jahking Guillory, Christopher Jordan Wallace, Christopher Meyer