The debut feature from director and co-writer Justin Tipping takes an alternative and almost surreal look at a familiar story of poverty and crime. Following a poor teenager and his two best friends, as they go on a quest to retrieve his new trainers, which were stolen by a violent street gang, Kicks is a surprisingly poetic and thoughtful drama about growing up, and what it means to be a man.
Little Brandon (Jahking Guillory) is the poorest kid from a poor neighbourhood. He can’t afford nice clothes or nice shoes, and he is viciously bullied as a result. His battered old kicks are a reflection of his life: shitty and torn to pieces. Then with his birthday money he buys a pair of Nike Air Jordans. For the briefest of times, Brandon feels like he fits in with the other kids. His life isn’t so terrible after all. And then some thugs beat him up and steal them.
As Brandon and his friends Rico (Christopher Meyer) and Albert (Christopher Wallace) start their quest to retrieve his shoes, the plot moves with an almost doomed inevitability. The cycle of violence, drugs, and poverty is a hard one to break, and all the characters are circling it. Whether you’re looking for trouble or trying to avoid it, it always pulls you in. The further Brandon goes, and the closer he gets to confronting the man who took his sneakers, you can feel it in your gut how this is going to end.
What elevates the film beyond its simple premise is the way the drama is punctuated with Brandon’s fantasies. He imagines being in outer space, a place of total quiet and solitude, where no one is around to kick his ass. From the social realism of the streets, the director takes us on a trip into surreal territory, as Brandon imagines an astronaut floating around him in zero gravity like a guardian angel. It’s a completely unexpected, but wholly inspired touch by Tipping, and reminded me very much of Donnie Darko, another startling debut about a disenfranchised teenager.
It is not without flaws, but what first time film isn’t? In its grittier moments you can feel it straining for the authenticity that it doesn’t quite nail. And the portrayal of women in the film is disappointing. They are voiceless, characterless “bitches” who exist to please men and shut the fuck up.
Tipping however, does a seriously impressive job with this his first feature, and clearly knows how to handle this material. He has a deft touch with the tone of the film, so that even in its darkest and most violent moments, he never lets it go too far.
Funny throughout, and pulsing along to a fantastic synth-driven score, Kicks is a visually stylish, well-paced indie drama and refreshingly original portrayal of street culture. The surreal flourishes and use of hip-hop as a poetic chorus for the drama keep it fresh and engaging despite the inevitable turns of the narrative. A terrific debut.