Every few years, there's a film whose major aim is to underline the plight of the inner-city, and they can be a hit or miss proposition dependent upon the filmmaker and the authenticity of voice that lies behind each script. Sometimes you get Do The Right Thing or Fruitvale Station, sometimes you get Crash or Dangerous Minds.
Kicks filmmaker, Justin Tipping, making his debut with this long-look at the struggle of inner-city youth and the essential form of masculinity that it takes to thrive and in some cases, survive, in the impoverished streets of San Francisco and Oakland. Tipping grew up in a neighborhood just like the one the film's protagonists walk through daily, and has a deep understanding of just how important the presentation of wealth is to these young men, who can just as easily be on the edge of a severe beating as they can be surrounded and adored by a bevy of women. It's a thin razor's edge that separates the two, and Kicks skillfully executes a first-person look at this, at-times, tragic way of life.
At the center of the film, is as you can imagine, a pair of shoes; a 1985 set of Air Jordan 1's. Brandon (Jahking Guillory), a small-framed, bushy-haired youth, who holds a remarkably strong resemblance to Jaden Smith (which the film makes mention of), is at the bottom of the food-chain among his teenage crowd. To demand respect among his peers, to whom hip-hop culture is the center of their universe, Brandon understands that his "shoe-game" has to improve from the worn-down low tops that he wears at school and the basketball courts that he frequents with his two best friends, the overweight jokester Albert (Christopher Jordan Wallace) and the handsome Rico (Christopher Meyer). In turn, Brandon scrimps and saves, and despite not having enough to buy the shoes of his dreams at the store, a man in a van comes along like magic and imparts the shoes in question. With these new "kicks", Brandon finds himself talking with girls, and even able to produce some freestyle to himself, where before he was never able to improvise with his friends.
Sadly, within a day, Brandon gets "jacked" by a local crew of toughs, led by the vicious Flaco (Kofi Siriboe), and is left a broken-shell, having to wear his mother's slippers just to get around after Flaco takes those prized Nikes. With revenge on his mind, and a former felon uncle (Mahershala Ali) in Oakland who he hopes can provide some assistance in finding his nemesis, Brandon strikes out on a cross-city trip of discovery with his two friends, where not everyone will make it out in one piece.
One of the admirable traits of Kicks is that it doesn't take a villainous tack with its antagonist, or paint its lead as an admirable hero undergoing a trial that's any worse than anyone else. Instead, both Brandon and Flaco are multi-faceted characters with definable flaws but also traits that make them relatable. Brandon is quick to put his friends at risk in order to parlay with his uncle, or when he's on the verge of his prized possessions, even when it requires them to enter the lion's den. On the other hand, Flaco is a father who much like Brandon, doesn't have anything and has little to really give to his son beyond a roof over his head and a toy for him to play with. They're both victims in a vicious cycle that values flashy material possessions and shows of manliness, and the two are ever intertwined, all the way down to allowing live firearms to lie beside your sleeping child in the same bed. No one is really to blame, unless everyone is (and I mean everybody), and really it's a societal mindset that produces heartbreaking situations just like this; where a young boy is exposed to violence and in turn, increases the likelihood that he will in turn become part of that same never-ending struggle. Kicks registers because it is so visceral in its presentation.
Beyond its cultural concerns, Kicks is also a gorgeously executive piece of cinema. Tipping frames picturesque looks at the urban topography within California's northern metropolis, making the city a central figure in the film's machinations. He also is willing to slow the action down on-screen, just as things begin to ramp up in-story, to highlight the joy on his characters' faces in the middle of whatever group-activity they may be engaged in. In addition, he strikes chapter breaks of a sort between scenes marked with the names of hip-hop artist and a song selection that echoes a sense of Brandon's internal struggle. It's a brilliant narrative conceit, that not only highlights the value of hip-hop in every aspect of the film itself, but also as a way to roll out a pretty excellent song selection and soundtrack.
In a way, the film plays like a sort-of inner city version of Beasts of the Southern Wild, where an imaginary figure is set in a central role, and driving its protagonist through their odyssey toward their end-goal. For Kicks, Brandon constantly sees visions of an astronaut, who acts as a sort of "guardian angel", especially in the early portions of the film, when the dreaming teenager needs him most. It appears at various points, particularly at moments of change for the character. It's an impressive visual, with some shots looking like a Storm Thorgerson album cover, but the film doesn't quite identify the connection between the source of the apparition and why its central figure is grasping onto it as a source of inspiration. A bit of research will quickly clear up any questions on the "why an astronaut?" point, but if there's one slight flaw in the film's approach, it may be that lack of outright clarity. Then again, a little ambiguity never hurt anyone.
With strong performances all around, an authentic approach to the material both in front of and behind the camera, beautiful cinematography, and a sense of tension that never lets up until its final shot, Kicks is one of the strongest debuts I've seen in years and a standout among 2016's cinematic crops.