Film Review: Kicks

A distinctly authentic-feeling coming-of-age story that introduces a bright new visionary filmmaker in Justin Tipping.
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The simple idea of an inner-city teen having his sneakers stolen and what he’ll do to get them back is the basis for what may be one of the most impressive feature film debuts of the year.

In Justin Tipping’s Kicks, Jahking Guillory plays Brandon (also known as Lil’ B), a 15-year old from a poorer section of Oakland, Calif., constantly picked on for being smaller than other kids his age. Brandon strives to be cool, although his best friends Rico (Christopher Meyer) and Albert (Christopher Jordan Wallace from Notorious) willingly disregard the fact Brandon can’t rap or play basketball, two ways to stay away from the area’s rampant crime scene. An important part of being accepted is having cool “kicks” (or sneakers), so Brandon uses all his savings to get an amazing pair of Air Jordans in hopes of elevating his status. Those same sneakers catch the eye of local hoodlum Flaco (Kofi Siriboe), who mugs Brandon with his entourage and takes them away.

There’s been so much talk this year about diversity and representation in film, which may be why Kicks feels so resonant, and Tipping avoids the usual coming-of-age stereotypes in telling a story centered around authentic-feeling inner-city kids. Last year’s Dope by Rick Famuyiwa may be the most obvious comparison, but even that was far more heightened and almost cartoonish compared to the authenticity Tipping brings to his own film.

Brandon and his friends are mostly interested in typical things like basketball, music, girls, sex and sneakers, but they’re developed so well in the film’s intro that what they go through over the course of Tipping’s film feels that much more intense. In doing so, it deals head-on with real issues these kids might face, deciding whether to get involved with the drugs and gangs that permeate their community.

That tough decision comes for Brandon when he steals a gun from his ex-convict uncle Marlon—a fantastic performance by Mahershala Ali, the film’s only “known” actor—and goes after Flaco with his cousins, who have already been inducted into that world. The movie takes a drastically different turn from there.

Despite the serious nature of the environment and its criminal element, Kicks isn’t handled in the grim manner some might expect, because Brandon’s best friends keep the tone light with their joking around, even when dragged into the violence themselves.

It’s also interesting that Flaco is given far more humanity than your typical film antagonist. Sure, he’s a thug and a drug dealer and basically bad news for anyone who crosses him, but we learn that he stole Brandon’s sneakers to give them to his own young son, and there a few touching moments between the two. In other words, Flaco—like everyone else caught up in Oakland’s cycle of gang violence—is still driven by very relatable human needs.

With a tightly written screenplay by Tipping and co-writer Joshua Beirne-Golden, the character interactions and dialogue feel so authentic you’ll sometimes wonder how much you’re watching is scripted and how much is Tipping merely capturing the real streets of Oakland.

And yet, the cinematography by Michael Ragen—rewarded at the Tribeca Film Festival when Kicks debuted in competition—gives the film a distinct visual style that frequently surpasses its budget or setting. Tipping often brings back the recurring image of an astronaut introduced early as an analogy for Brandon’s need to escape, not only from his impoverished lifestyle but also from his own insecurities.

The film is broken down into chapters, each one introduced by its own classic hip-hop track from the likes of Nas and Jay-Z, helping set up the mood for each turn the film takes. That choice is contrasted with a lush score by Brian Reitzell, which may seem like an odd decision if it weren’t perfectly matched to the film’s more dreamlike moments.

With Kicks, Tipping has created a glorious coming-of-age film unlike any other, a movie that successfully allows viewers to relate to characters and situations that may be far outside their own personal purview. 

Click here for cast and crew information.