A promising start that never elevates to excellence during its running time.
Kicks starts off with Brandon, our lead character, introducing us to his wishes of being in space, where he no longer gets chased around the neighborhood and can live in perfect quiet. His dreams are accompanied by visions of a man (or woman) in a space suit, and this astronaut makes many appearances throughout the movie during critical moments. It’s weird and otherworldly, and does momentarily elevate this movie into the stratosphere, but the reality keeps dragging us down.
Directed by first time filmmaker Justin Tipping, Kicks is a run-of-the-mill week-in-the-life coming-of-age story about a 15-year-old named Brandon, growing up poor in Richmond, CA, and dreaming of having a fresh pair of Jordans (Nike Air Jordan sneakers) so he can keep up with the other kinds in his school, including his best friends Albert and Rico. He scrounges and hustles to buy these shoes, and is able to acquire them from a shady guy who sells them out of his car.
Soon after, though, he’s robbed by a group of men led by the menacing Flaco, who takes the shoes and immediately gifts them to his young son. Brandon will do anything to get these shoes back, and so it goes.
We’re led on a quest that takes our trio of heroes “all the way to Oakland,” where Brandon does a bunch of things for what we’re led to believe is the first time: smoke pot, have sex, attend a sideshow, and carry a gun. It’s the last thing that becomes so problematic here. Both our character and our movie makes a choice about whether or not to enter the world of gun violence, and the choices both make are consistently cringe-worthy.
What the story lacks in value, the production makes up for with its excellence. Made with what surely was a paper thin budget (with a fair portion going to the soundtrack), Tipping gets excellent performances from most of the cast. Christopher Jordan Wallace as Albert and Mahershala Ali as Uncle Marlon stood out to me, but the entire cast felt like real people living here in the East Bay.
And that what makes this movie almost must see for those of us living here. We’re so used to seeing beautiful San Francisco on film, seeing the neighborhoods of this side of the Bay is quite the pleasant change. We see beautiful buildings with dingy, poorly kept interiors, and the backyards and alleys become the safe spaces, while wide open streets can bring danger to vulnerable youth.
Another standout is the soundtrack, which contrasts the hip-hop music our characters are constantly listening to with futuristic pulsing synthesizers that are in our main character’s head when he dreams of the astronaut and the safety of being in space. The sound mix even surprises at times, with the music taking over from the real sounds of the street when his stress levels increase.
Kicks is full of moments and flashes of style that suggest something amazing coming, but it’s simply not here yet. There are character moments that work well, a strong sense of setting, and a quality of production belying the first time filmmaker label. It’s a promising first feature, and I look forward to seeing what comes next.
Kicks opens today at The Grand Lake Theater in Oakland