The bus always arrived early at my middle school. We had to wait outside of the building until the bell rang. During that time, the guys would stand around and shoot the breeze, crack jokes, and look at each others’ shoes. If you had fresh kicks, it was a talking point. That was in the suburbs of South Carolina. Co-writer/director Justin Tipping explores a Bay Area world in which shoes equate to self-worth, status, and respect in Kicks, which premiered at Tribeca this weekend.
Brandon (Jahking Guillory) is a high school, latch key kid fending for himself most days. What he lacks in size he has in speed to get away from bullies he tells us in narration. His mom is out providing, while he does the same stuff...different day. That includes hanging with his boys, ladies man Rico (Christopher Meyer) and funny man Albert (Christopher Jordan Wallace). Brandon doesn’t have much, but what he does have is an imagination in which an MTV-like moon man representing his higher self follows him around, and a pair of shoes that he’s had since middle school. His friends are like brothers, but even they have nice sneakers. At the age in which all you have to worry about is going to school, fitting in, and mac’ing girls, a nice pair of kicks would help Brandon be “somebody”.
Tipping does a great job at placing us in Brandon’s world and seeing life through his eyes. It’s rare to see an adult in the film, and therefore the stakes are scaled to the age level of the protagonist, but they quickly mean just as much to us. After scrounging the house for all his birthday money and selling candy on the street, Brandon has enough to purchase some dope Bred Ones from the local hustle man. For a moment, Brandon is about six inches taller, confident, and even has the courage to flirt with a girl. But that changes when Flaco (Kofi Siriboe), the local thug who runs the neighborhood, jumps Brandon and takes his shoes.
From there the film moves forward as Brandon decides to reclaim what was his, regardless of what it may cost. His hunt for Flaco takes him across town to his uncle Marlon’s (Mahershala Ali, who is absolutely stellar in his scenes), a party, and some pretty sticky situations. For an ensemble trio, the chemistry of Guillory, Meyer, and Wallace works well. Their characters’ bond is strong but hasn’t been tested, and the actors do a great job portraying the strain and tension that comes from helping a friend that’s running to the front line of death to recover shoes from a psycho.
If they still sell soundtracks, this will definitely be one for hip hop heads to download. Boasting a mix of Wu-Tang, E-40, Jay Z, Mac Dre, and more, the music sets the tone for the film with quotes from artists breaking the film up into sections. Yet more powerful than the film’s soundtrack is its message. Co-writers Joshua Beirne-Golden and Justin Tipping find a way to explore universal connections in an asinine hyper-masculine world. They use light moments to humanize tough ex-con Marlon as he holds his sick mother’s hand to keep her calm while speaking to Brandon, and show Flaco as a loving father playing basketball with his son. Where most movies have a tough guy or one sided villain, it’s hard to disregard Flaco because he does have a redeeming side. Therein lies the message.
We all have family, we all love, but somewhere along the line society has groomed us to not show the same care to our neighbors, especially someone who is different; even if that just means that they’re from the other side of town. In Kicks’ world of machismo we witness the turning process at various stages: through the eyes of the youngest, Jeremiah; those at the crossroads, Brandon and his crew; one constantly fighting for respect, Flaco; and one lucky enough to survive it, Marlon. While the visuals and music can be entertaining, the message is there as well. Perhaps Kicks can be a great conversation starter for an issue that plagues inner city neighborhoods today.