VOD film review: Kicks
Ivan Radford | On 25, May 2017
Director: Justin Tipping
Cast: Jahking Guillory, Christopher Jordan Wallace, Christopher Meyer, Mahershala Ali
Watch Kicks online in the UK: Apple TV (iTunes) / Prime Video (Buy/Rent) / TalkTalk TV / Rakuten TV / Google Play
“Deciding to wear flip flops is like saying I hope don’t get chased today,” Brandon (Guillory) tells us at the start of Kicks. He’s quoting a comedian from decades ago, but he’s speaking for himself. “That’s why I don’t wear fucking flip flops,” he spits.
Growing up in Oakland, Brandon is 15 years old, caught in the limbo between adolescence and adulthood – a limbo full of boys trying to be men and men acting like boys. It’s in that kind of environment, where poverty meets would-have wealth, that things like shoes become important. There’s an almost fetishised culture surrounding footwear in Brandon’s neighbourhood, and it’s easy to see how sneakers grow to have status in deprived teen circles: wear rubbish shoes and you’re worth walking all over; wear flash shoes and you’re somebody.
That’s why Brandon dreams of having a pair of red Air Jordans, the kind of Nikes that you spot across the hallway at school and admire from afar. But when he manages to swap his old, battered trainers for the coveted, glistening pair, he learns a harsh truth about fashion statements: if you look like you’re somebody, that means you have something other people want. His hopes of not getting chased? They don’t last long.
A nasty confrontation later and local menace Flaco has thiefed his Jays – and so Brandon gets his two friends, Albert (Wallace) and Rico (Meyer), to help him snatch them back. It’s a reckless decision, one that, as cinema tropes have told us countless times, can only end in violence.
But director Justin Tipping is interested in more than just repeating cliches, crafting a tone that manages to capture the heightened magic as well as tragic vulnerability of youth: Brandon’s decision is less driven by the fact that it’s in the familiar script and more by the fact that he’s a teenager, prone to naivety, rashness and a fixation on some cool trainers. The movie, tellingly, spends more time hanging out with Brandon and his mates – who, equally tellingly, bully him as much as Flaco – than anything else; there’s a surprising lightness and a deft, almost dorky humour, which stems directly from Jahking Guillory’s superbly charismatic lead performance, and his chemistry with the equally impressive Christopher Jordan Wallace and Christopher Meyer.
There’s heart, too, and a deceptive complexity to the tapestry being woven, as Kofi Siriboe’s excellent turn as Flaco (and a final act that balances tenderness with fateful twists) shows us a human side to what could have been a two-dimensional villain. There are no cut-outs here, with everyone from Flaco and his unexpected family to Mahershala Ali’s earnest but intimidating presence as Brandon’s uncle ringing with truth. Those truths, for the most part, go unspoken; this is a film about showing more than telling, as Tipping throws rap lyrics on screens to divide up poetically-titled chapters, which present us with more and more examples of men trying to attain manhood, despite the notable lack of father figures on screen.
The result is lyrical, gritty, moving and ambitious – a directorial debut that announces a new filmmaking talent with a beautiful confidence, style and humanity. Throughout, Brandon’s imagination is illustrated by the appearance of a guardian angel-like figure in a spacesuit, symbolising his wish of escaping and floating away. It sometime feels like a step too far from the first-time helmer, but Tipping and DoP Michael Ragen excel at treading the line between hope and gravity. Kicks flies along on a kids’ dreams, but keeps its feet firmly on the ground. They have big shoes to fill.