Directed by Justin Tipping
Opens September 9
“Sometimes it feels like everyone is cooler than me,” the downtrodden Brandon confesses toward the beginning of Kicks, yet another daydreamy cruel-story-of-youth to follow in the footsteps of George Washington, but one that nonetheless marks the promising feature debut of director Justin Tipping. Small for his age and more visibly impoverished than most of the other students at his East Bay high school, the 15-year-old Brandon (Jahking Guillory) has reason to feel sorry for himself—a situation that his two best friends, ladies’ man Rico (Christopher Meyer) and blustery sidekick Albert (Christopher Jordan Wallace, the son and namesake of the late Notorious B.I.G.), apparently don’t do much to alleviate, judging by the fact that the guy scarcely lets his guard down even around them. Thus when Brandon scrounges together the cash for a pair of original Air Jordans, he hopes to acquire a measure of social capital as well. The hard-won fashion statement seems poised to pay off as a girl approaches him from across the basketball court to ask where he got his new shoes. It’s not long, though, before a loose-cannon local criminal named Flaco (Kofi Siriboe) steals them right off his feet.
The shoestring indie Kicks, which won a deserved Tribeca jury award this spring for Michael Ragen’s lucid cinematography, happens to have a whole lot more style on display than just those Air Jordans. As Brandon undertakes the perilous journey to reclaim his sneakers, enlisting the help of his estranged ex-con uncle (Mahershala Ali, memorably imposing) in tracking down Flaco, Tipping often shows his protagonist alongside a silent man in a spacesuit, so that the imaginary friend comes a to symbolize the innocence the boy’s at risk of losing on this perilous errand. In form, the film comes to resemble something like a mixtape compilation, divided as it is into sections cleverly titled after individual rap classics. And there is such a glut of atmospheric slo-mo that eventually you wonder just how short the 87-minute film would be with every sequence set to full speed.
All the while it’s hard to fathom that Brandon—who, by his own admission at the movie’s outset, has “never been in a real fight”—would be so principled about recovering his Nikes that he’d put himself, not to mention his friends, so squarely in harm’s way. Anyway, the tight-lipped kid doesn’t seem to have much interest in explaining himself. In the film’s most interesting departure from gangster cliché, Flaco turns out to be a single father, a subplot that clarifies Kicks‘ cycles-of-violence theme. As this otherwise modest drama threatens, rather surprisingly, to rack up a body count, Tipping (who also co-wrote the script with Joshua Beirne-Golden) all but demands that you sit up and pay attention. That the life-or-death stakes don’t feel contrived is a testament to the filmmaker’s skill in very gradually escalating the danger. As Kicks ends, it feels like Tipping is just starting to get it together as a storyteller. In all likelihood, we’ll be hearing from him again soon.