With his expressive eyes and a wild mane that dances like a sea anemone, talented newcomer Jahking Guillory makes a transfixing central presence in Kicks, an inner-city coming-of-age drama about codes of friendship and masculinity, revolving around the theft of a pair of flashy Nike Air Jordans. First-time director Justin Tipping’s finesse with dialogue and story is less developed than his visual sense. But if the movie is over-reliant on slo-mo, voiceover and almost wall-to-wall music to drive scenes, its silky blend of lyricism with urban grit marks it as a promising debut.
Co-written by Tipping and Josh Beirne-Golden, the film focuses on Brandon (Guillory), a 14-year-old from a low-income Bay Area family. He’s small for his age but a fast runner, which keeps him out of fights. His dreamily poetic, quasi-rap reflections provide the narration, accompanied by the recurring motif of a spaceman in full astronaut gear — an interesting visual incongruity that somewhat emphatically suggests protection, isolation and escape.
Brandon’s inseparable buddies are Rico (Christopher Meyer), a smooth operator whose handsome looks and prepossessing swagger draw the girls like moths to a flame; and Albert (Christopher Jordan Wallace, son of The Notorious B.I.G.), who fits the standard chunky-comic-sidekick mold, talking the talk about his prowess with women, probably based on zero actual experience. Brandon’s diminutive size and relative lack of confidence make him the baby of the trio, though Guillory amply conveys the hungry depths beneath his angelic, almost androgynous appearance. (One character refers to him jokingly as “Will Smith’s little boy.”)
In a sharp comment on the fetishistic importance placed on pricey consumer goods to elevate status in poor urban subcultures, Brandon has his heart set on a pair of reissued Air Jordan 1s in black and red. Those shoes become an effective symbol for hard-won manhood in a tough environment.
Brandon pools together savings and income from reselling candy on the street and buys a pair from a local black-market dealer whose van functions as a discount sneaker store. But no sooner does he start floating along on his skateboard, enjoying the boost to his self-esteem and his new magnetism with girls, than he gets hammered by resident hood tough guy Flaco (Kofi Siriboe) and his crew, who force him to hand over his kicks.
Working with agile editors Dominic LaPerriere and Tomas Vengris, and a dense soundtrack that shuffles assorted hip-hop tracks with Brian Reitzell’s score, Tipping keeps the film’s brisk rhythms humming. He breaks up the story with chapter headings pulled from lyrics by hip-hop artists of the past and present, including Nas, Jay Z, Too $hort, Mac Dre, Kendrick Lamar and Tupac. All that edgy street attitude is tempered, however, by a pervasive sweetness and a humorous light touch in the way the likeable central characters are observed.
Their innocence is put to the test when Brandon decides to get his shoes back and guilt-trips Rico and Albert into tagging along to help. He goes to his ex-con uncle Marlon (Mahershala Ali from House of Cards, terrific in his couple of scenes) across town for advice, revealing how estranged Brandon and his mother have become from the badass side of the family. The former drug dealer tells his nephew to be a man: “You gotta handle your business yourself.”
The modulation between adventure and legitimate danger isn’t entirely seamless, but Tipping succeeds in ratcheting up tension as Brandon and his posse, expanded to include Marlon’s stoner sons (Donte and Dante Clark), arrive at a neighborhood “sideshow,” where crowds gather to watch drivers spin their cars in high-speed circles. They see Flaco among the spectators, along with his preteen son (Michael Smith Jr.), wearing the stolen sneakers. That element captures the inherent contrasts within the hood subculture of tenderness and machismo, a dichotomy stressed throughout the movie, some places more subtly than others.
As the rather pedestrian escalating violence and gunplay take over the picture, it becomes more than anything about consequences — physical, moral and psychological — on the road to maturity. The characters are thinly drawn and the drama not without cliché. Female figures, in particular, barely register, from Brandon’s invisible mother to the various girlz n the hood, confined to stereotypes. But Guillory’s performance — full of guts, determination and quiet anger; intense and yet simultaneously restrained — keeps you invested, as do the slick visuals.
Cinematographer Michael Ragen’s widescreen images, loose and free-flowing, are manipulated in swoony ways that owe a debt to Jacques Audiard and Wong Kar-wai (both of them acknowledged by Tipping in press notes). At the same time, the director establishes his own vernacular, rooted in an authentic sense of place.
Venue: Tribeca Film Festival (U.S. Narrative Competition)
Cast: Jahking Guillory, Christopher Meyer, Christopher Jordan Wallace, Kofi Siriboe, Mahershala Ali, Stanley Cox, Zinnia Vilce, Michael Smith Jr., Donte Clark, Dante Clark
Production companies: Animal Kingdom, in association with Through Films, Bow and Arrow, Northern Lights Media Ventures, Unbundled Underground, Hidden Empire Film Group, Marlowe Pictures, Mott Street Pictures, BGA Productions, Bystorm Entertainment
Director: Justin Tipping
Screenwriters: Justin Tipping, Josh Beirne-Golden
Producers: David Kaplan, Adele Romanski, Michael Covino, Joshua Astrachan, Geoffrey Quan, Erik Rommesmo, Joshua Beirne-Golden
Executive producers: Michael Sherman, Matthew Perniciaro, Macus Cox, Karrie Cox, Deon Taylor, Fredrick W. Green, Gilda Moratti, Samuel Kretchmar, Ken Germann, Kyle Marvin, Robin Schorr, Robert Smith, Jeff Schlossman, Bill Wallwork, Jesse Ozeri, Mark Pitts, Giulio Marantonio, Alex Sagalchik, Alex Reznik, Wayne Barrow
Director of photography: Michael Ragen
Production designer: Erin Magill
Costume designer: Brenda Moreno
Music: Brian Reitzell
Editor: Dominic LaPerriere, Tomas Vengris
Casting: Kimberly R. Hardin, Natasha Ward, Nina Henninger
Sales: Focus World
Not rated, 87 minutes