“Sometimes I just wish I had a spaceship,” young protagonist Brandon (Jahking Guillory) says in the opening dreamy moments of the new urban drama, “Kicks.” “Where it’s quiet. And no one would fuck with me.” Brandon is pining for all types of escape: from difficult life, impoverished circumstances and in many regards, his own small body.
With an astronaut in a spacesuit observing his moves, Brandon runs for his life as a group of thuggish street bullies looking to stomp him out. The astronaut is his metaphorical escape mechanism, as well as the omniscient conscience that follows Brandon around the gritty streets of the Bay Area. It’s a dream, for sure, but its intent is more complicated than it seems on the surface. And at any rate, this allegoric device certainly separates the film from every hip hop-inflected drama ever made.
Buzzing with vibrant energy juxtaposed with lyrical dreaminess, Justin Tipping’s bold and self-assured “Kicks” is an arresting directorial debut, perhaps the greatest of 2016. Its outright excellence is also a head scratcher as it debuted not at Sundance (it absolutely should have been one of their big breakthrough titles), but at the Tribeca Film Festival (no offense) to minimal buzz. Tipping’s movie is a raw and poignant exploration of masculinity, violence and limited opportunities in underprivileged urban areas.
Tonal equilibrium in movies can be tough, but Tipping assuredly mixes his dreamy sequences with teenage humor and of course the more sobering raw grit of the streets. And the seamless balance here is just pure cinematic poetry.
Broken up by chapters titled after hip-hop songs (Gangstarr’s “Moment Of Truth,” Wu Tang Clan’s “C.R.E.A.M.,” etc.) and driven by similar swagger-filled music, “Kicks” centers on a near spiritual longing for something more. Brandon is the runt of his pack, which includes Albert (Christopher Jordan Wallace; son of late rapper The Notorious B.I.G and R&B singer Faith Evans) and Rico (Christopher Meyer). Tiny and bullied, Brandon is a daydreamer who wants respect from his peers, but doesn’t know how to achieve it or realize it’s something to be earned. He’s too small to play basketball or fuck with girls and the young boy is just dying to become an adult, presuming it will change his pre-pubescent life. He raps in his head all day; he’s living an interior existence in a world that’s all about the currency you carry on the outside. His pining is expressed as a sensitive wistfulness.
Brandon’s small-scale longing is for something he thinks will solve all his problems: a pair of fresh, status-boosting Air Jordans. But after a local hood robs him of his stylish kicks — which mean everything to the boy’s difficult existence — Brandon and his friends set out on a dangerous quest through the streets of Oakland to retrieve them. But it’s a resentment-driven, ill-advised rite of passage with brutal and irrevocable consequences (to this end, a fabulous Mahershala Ali from “House Of Cards” also turns up in a small, but critical role).
No one is who they seem in “Kicks,” which is part of Tipping’s thoughtful shading of grays. Heroes and villains blur together and not one character knows how to do the right thing. Brandon’s not a tough guy, though he plays the reckless part and he’s not really the man he thinks he wants to be. His friends act like pimps, but most of them have never even kissed a girl. Even Flaco (a tremendous Kofi Siriboe), the crummy gangster who steals Brandon’s shoes, has another dimension to him revealed later in the movie to heartbreaking effect.
Every one of the characters in “Kicks” is an actor to keep an eye on, but it’s the lead, Jahking Guillory, with his quiet anger and introspective mien, who’s absolutely remarkable. A compelling presence matched with a director who knows how to coax soulful performances out of an actor can mean cinematic gold. In “Kicks” it’s like blinged-out platinum —Tipping’s film is deeply engaging and it’s because of how much we empathize with Brandon.
Reminiscent of “Boyz N’ Da Hood” and “Menace II Society” in its grittier moments, the truth is “Kicks” is much more soulful than either (no, really) and a sublime humanity courses through the film that separates it from most typical gangsta dramas. Conversely, if the feeling of Sofia Coppola comes up and yet you resist the urge to say it aloud for fear of being jumped by your laugh-at-you homeboys, don’t. The beautiful ambient score is by Coppola’s musical man Brian Reitzell and his moody music along with sun-dappled, inspired use of slow motion cinematography — used often, never played out — definitely are certainly evocative of her reflective style. The key difference is “Kicks” is a fable with street smarts too and never sticks in just one plaintive key.
Imbued with a rich humanity and a heart-wrenching third act that tests the thoughtlessness of every character, “Kicks” is beyond promising in regards to Justin Tipping. This feels like a third or fourth film, not an out-of-the-gate premiere. Ultimately, “Kicks” wants to undress the myth of manhood. Brandon is constantly told to man-up, be a man and by any means necessary get his kicks back. But Tipping wants to provide alternatives and prove violence need not be synonymous with masculinity. And it’s a very specific masculinity the film wants to dress down: a prideful and phony one built on a cycle that makes men believe that to survive they must front. And yet it’s the only currency that machismo men in this life can hold on to. Even Brandon works against his very nature as a sweet, albeit deeply frustrated kid.
Essentially a devastating coming of age odyssey, and a morally complex one built on painful lessons, the gripping “Kicks” deconstructs the desire to be a man in contrast to what true manhood actually requires. Moreover, Tipping’s bold and meditative drama with its reflective moods and streetwise grime has delivered one of the best feature-length debuts of 2016 and one of the best films of the year, period. [A]