Hollywood has essentially been telling the same story of African-American inner city youths since Boyz in the Hood. Hopelessness, death, poverty, oppression, it's all part and parcel of a genre that remains important, these stories still need to be told, yet hasn't been given much of a creative facelift. Fortunately we have Kicks, Justin Tipping's feature debut which is about as striking a first effort as any I've ever seen. On the surface it looks like any other urban drama, but Tipping's use of whimsical fairy tale and sci-fi elements combines with heartbreaking social commentary for a totally unique experience.
Years ago there was an epidemic of young black kids being murdered over sneakers. It's still a problem, but it was really bad a while ago. News reports on such deaths seemed to pop up almost daily. The reason isn't just that shoes are expensive and people want them. They're a status symbol, a glimmer of hope when the neighborhood offers nothing but despair. If you can get just a small piece of what the celebrities have then maybe there's a chance of escaping neighborhood. Kicks takes this idea and runs with it in the story of Brandon (Jahking Guillory), a wild-haired runt in the poorest section of Oakland. Growing up in such a rough 'hood has made him a target for bullies who pick on him for his size, his lame second-hand clothes, and the flip-flops he wears. Think he can get girls? Not on your life. All he has are his two best friends, Rico (Christopher Meyer) and Albert (Christopher Jordan Wallace, son of late rapper Biggie Smalls), but they don't have much to offer either. Unlike most kids, Brandon doesn't rap or even try to. He can't play basketball, and doesn't even try to. So how is a kid like him ever supposed to get away?
What Brandon knows is that he needs to sport some new kicks. That'll change everything. If he can get those sick red and black Jordans, the originals, then that would do it. So he saves up what little cash he has and buys a pair from the local bootlegger. Instantly his world shifts. Girls start to notice him, he's brimming with confidence he never had. Then...it all comes crushing down when local hood Flaco (Kofi Siriboe) and his crew beat down Brandon and steal his kicks, capturing the humiliating act on Youtube.
What follows is a surreal odyssey into manhood as Brandon does whatever it takes to get his shoes back. His quest is detailed in a style best described as Malick-ian, with hip-hop used to set a landscape that can be both beautiful and insanely chaotic. RJD2's swelling, triumphant "The Sheboygan" is used expertly at a moment of ultimate joy for Brandon, meanwhile tracks by E-40, Wu-Tang Clan, and more capture his single-minded obsession to reclaim what was stolen. The gorgeous cinematography by Michael Ragen, honored with an award at Tribeca earlier this year, gives equal measure to moments warm and vicious.
But just as the sneakers represent Brandon's dream for a better future, the screenplay by Tipping and Joshua Beirne-Golden show what they mean to others, as well. Flaco could have easily been just a one-note nemesis, and at times he is, but we also see him as a father who hopes to implant similar dreams upon his son. The interactions between Brandon and his buddies, usually about women, sex, and sports, all feel incredibly genuine, aided by terrific performances by all involved. There aren't a lot of known faces here, but if there's one it's Mahershala Ali (House of Cards, The Hunger Games) who delivers some hard truths as Brandon's ex-convict uncle. He presses upon Brandon the need to be a man and fight his own battles rather than seeking help from others. Brandon's decision on how to do that takes the story in a darker, yet entirely necessary, direction. If he's ever going to become a man and get what he wants, he's going to have to learn to deal with the punishment life dishes out. It's a harsh lesson, but Kicks delivers it in a style that's distinct and definitely shouldn't be missed.
Rating: 4 out of 5