Learning to become a man from the shoes up, Brandon (Jahking Guillory) is taught the value of his new Jordans through a chaotic and lively couple of days spent on the streets of Oakland. The debut feature film from director Justin Tipping, Kicks tells a familiar story but accomplishes its goals with gorgeous flashes of joy-inducing cinematic flair. It’s an uneven, yet often absorbing coming-of-age adventure in the hood, and one that I greatly enjoyed.
15 years old and still waiting on an adolescent growth spurt, Brandon walks with his head down, hiding from violent gangbangers behind his long, curly locks. His best friends Albert (Christopher Jordan Wallace) and Rico (Christopher Meyer) make fun of his girly hair whenever they’re not flirting with high school girls. Meanwhile, Brandon keeps his focus on the shoes everyone wears.
In a neighborhood full of young men without job opportunities, who command respect through their stature or through the luxuries they own, Brandon sees having fresh feet as a way of declaring his manhood. His friend Rico’s got the 3s and Albert has a pair of 6s, but Brandon’s own sneakers are scuffed and starting to tear apart. Through a short montage, Brandon saves up enough money to buy his own pair of Jordan, but he learns their true value when he’s mugged, beaten up and left to walk home without shoes. Having been robbed of something more vital to him than just a pair of shoes, Brandon sets out with his friends to find the guy who took his Jordans and get them back.
Justin Tipping, along with the script’s co-writer Joshua Beirne-Golden, cleverly allows the shoes, along with the importance Brandon places on them, to illustrate the environment for these young, Oakland residents. Getting this pair of shoes does more than make Brandon look more fashionable, it gives him the confidence to chase down the gang members he’s spent his lifetime avoiding as well as have the courage to approach girls. Still, the shoes are only shoes, and when the boys seek out the advice of Marlon (Mahershala Ali), the lone fully-grown adult to make an extended appearance in Kicks, he shows no interest in retrieving Brandon’s shoes.
Michael Ragen’s gorgeous cinematography captures Brandon and his friends traveling through Oakland on bikes or on trains with several slow motion shots. The movie often takes on a temporary hip-hop music video aesthetic, as it does when the boys drink and watch drifters in a parking lot. To compliment these images are several classic rap songs like “Fresh To Death” by Jay-Z or “Nikes On My Feet” by Nas, introduced through on-screen title cards. Kicks is immersed in the world of hip-hop influenced culture, marrying the music and pictures in delightful ways.
The one-track plot does eventually wear on the movie’s momentum though. Even at 87 minutes, too much time during Kicks is spent on the tangential adventures in between Brandon and his shoes. Tipping maintains a focus on building character here, which is done with admirable efficiency. Brandon’s hunt for the gangster Flaco (Kofi Siriboe) is interspersed with scenes that bring depth to Flaco’s home life. Rather than paint characters as broadly good or bad, Tipping’s film understands the complexity behind the decisions these young men make.
Unfortunately, the movie fails to show any of its female characters the same type of courtesy. Nearly every woman that appears on-screen in Kicks is either someone the boys are meant to lust after, promptly told to, “Shut up,” while talking, or a combination of both. Considering the seemingly POV perspective that much of Kicks takes, it could be rationalized that this demonstrates Brandon’s limited understanding of women; however, even the two young girls that talk to Brandon are single-minded in their interest, which is him.
“I don’t wear fucking flip flops,” says Brandon’s narration near the start of Kicks, while he walks past a guy getting chased and beaten down by a gang without intervening. Tipping’s script, co-written by fellow newcomer Joshua Beirne-Golden, makes Brandon a silent observer through several scenes, which lets the lens tell the majority of this story. Brandon dreams of escaping to a place where, “no one can fuck with him,” and this desire to escape manifests through a mysterious astronaut with a clean, white suit that appears in Brandon’s dreams, beckoning the young black man with an outreached arm.
These visual moments, along with the compelling character dynamics of this world, ties together a film with a somewhat uninvolving plot. Kicks is yet another young man’s coming-of-age story, but through Tipping’s cerebrally crafted narrative, the movie provides a fun, engaging window into the life of a poor, Bay Area teenager.
First-time filmmaker Justin Tipping enlivens the familiar beats of coming-of-age movies with a character-focused, beautifully shot debut film set in a poor Oakland neighborhood.