Section: US Narrative Competition
I was a bit worried at the beginning of this one.
It began with a voiceover, which is not a death knell for any film, but still an all too common trope on which too many filmmakers rely. But that was just in the beginning, and everything got stronger and deeper from that point.
Instantly we meet Brandon, a short for his age but very cute, and very goofy, 15-year old living in the Bay Area of Oakland and San Francisco. His disposition isn’t helped by his being straight-up poor, so much so that his sneaker game is mad weak – his shoes have what we used to say as kids (in the 1980’s!) that he had air-conditioning. Meanwhile, his friends have so much more going for them in their own special ways: Marco (Christopher Meyer) is tall, handsome, and athletic despite smoking weed and drinking all the time, and pulls all the best women; Albert (Christopher Jordan Wallace, son of slain rapper Notorious B.I.G.) is in many ways Marco’s physical opposite, but is a burgeoning rapper and quick-witted. Brandon is none of these things, remarking early on that, “Sometimes it feels like everybody’s cooler than me.” What really enhances his peers’ game are their top-shelf sneakers, which Brandon cannot afford.
Doing odd jobs to save up for the re-issue of the first Air Jordans, a chance opportunity allows Brandon to purchase them at a discount. His confidence is now high, and cuties are even checking him out – but so are troublemakers, and he instantly becomes a target for the menacing Flaco. After these fresh kicks become Flaco’s own, Brandon decides it’s time for him to become a ‘man’ and fight for what’s his, with the help of Albert and Marco. But his hero’s journey becomes totally atypical, with the big-bad guy having a surprisingly complex lifestyle, and Brandon’s taking quite scary and violent turns in his obsession over sneakers, and to prove his manhood to all involved. Brandon’s sneaker salesman tells him that, “These cost more than your life,” and his foreshadowing is biting and all too real.
Mahershala Ali (House of Cards, The Hunger Games: Mockingjay), always-underrated, but achieving due fame, is potent as Brandon’s jailbird uncle, whom Brandon turns to for ‘hood advice. His presence makes this already compelling film that much more remarkable. And Kofi Siriboe as Flaco is a Stringer Bell-like baddie (with less smarts though), complicated in proving his manhood as well, in a multitude of ways. The ladies in the audience will undoubtedly eat him up. See him next in Ava DuVernay’s TV project Queen Sugar. Wallace is very charming as Albert, so its refreshing to see that Biggie Smalls’ son wasn’t just cast for name recognition.
But this is unquestionably Jahking Guillory’s film. He is one million percent believable playing the innocent-turned-infatuated Brandon, and is a star in the making. Though for Black actors, that honestly doesn’t play out like it should. But that’s another story.
Kicks director and AFI film school grad Justin Tipping, passionate in portraying the universal struggles of teenage-dom, remarked in recent Indiewire interview that, “It’s pretty backwards in retrospect and my interest is in how we can create a dialogue to solve this notion that masculinity is synonymous with violence — Why do we perpetuate it? How can it be un-taught?” The pairing of these themes with the fetishization of sneaker and popular culture makes the stakes high for all the film’s characters.
In the same interview, Tipping mentioned his affinity for Italian neorealism directors like Vittorio De Sica (Kicks is very much like De Sica’s The Bicycle Thief) and Federico Fellini, which is instantly apparent in the film, with dream sequences and floating astronauts present throughout, and a mix of actors and non-actors cast. Unlike these uses in other films, there’s no pretension felt (okay, maybe at first there is) and these ethereal variations, especially by the film’s end, enhance the entire feel of the film entirely. There are some questionable choices made, especially in reflection to a non-Black director portraying characters resplendent in ghetto behaviors, but as a person who also grew up in the multicultural Bay Area and experienced the same teenage travails as Brandon, Tipping’s perspective is genuine.
There’s a lot to take in with Kicks, and it’s not easy to watch, but it will have your mind rolling with so many thoughts that its place as piece of artistic storytelling is unquestionable.
Bold As Love Festival Rating: 4/5
Director: Justin Tipping
Writers: Justin Tipping and Joshua Beirne-Golden
Cast: Jahking Guillory, Mahershala Ali, Kofi Siriboe, Christopher Jordan Wallace, Christopher Meyer
Runtime: 87 min.
- Saturday April 16, 2:30pm at Bow Tie Cinemas Chelsea
- Tuesday April 19, 6:15pm at Regal Cinemas Battery Park
- Friday April 22, 2:30pm at Bow Tie Cinemas Chelsea
The 2016 Tribeca Film Festival runs from April 13 – 24 in New York City