In Kicks, Brandon (Jahking Guillory) is a 15-year-old boy living in the tough East Bay, California city of Richmond, where he spends his days hanging out with friends Rico (Christopher Meyer) and Albert (Christopher Jordan Wallace, doing his best to avoid being picked on and dreaming of either an astronaut floating serenely above him or the perfect pair of Air Jordan sneakers that he desires but can’t afford. But no sooner does he save up enough money to buy the highly sought-after red-and-blacks kicks — giving him a brief taste of status among his friends and more importantly, some local girls — than they are swiped off his feet by a hood named Flaco (Kofi Siriboe), who brings them home not for himself but for his own young son.
An enraged Brandon heads into Oakland to retrieve his shoes, the loyal Rico and Albert in tow, stopping at his uncle Marlon’s (Mahershala Ali, House of Cards) place to secretly pocket a gun and enlist some of his older cousins on his quest as well. It’s not a mission, however, that will end well, and before the day is done the cost of trying to get those damn sneakers back — and the fact that the shoes are so important to these kids who are deprived of many more important things — will weigh heavily on everyone involved.
Director and co-writer Justin Tipping makes a confident and even occasionally audacious debut here, placing his story somewhere in a nexus containing gritty realism, surreal flourishes and biting humor — Kicks plays sort of like the offspring of Dope and Bicycle Thieves. Of course, all this makes for a somewhat uneven experience as well: the metaphor of the astronaut — meant to represent possibly some kind of peace or solitude for Brandon — never quite hits home and ends up being a distraction more than anything else, and an unnecessarily arty one.
The filmmaker bats around .500 with his characters as well: Brandon is fully realized, his innocence and anger waging war on his expressive face, and Flaco is surprisingly portrayed as much more than a common street hood as we see the clear love between him and his son. These relatively unknown actors are real finds, while the veteran Ali does excellent work as well as the world-weary, seen-it-all Marlon, who can’t even muster up much anger upon the news of a tragedy because he probably knew it was inevitable anyway. But Brandon’s friends — especially the female variety, who are just there as flirts or sex kittens — are not as fleshed out.
Nevertheless, Tipping tells his story (apparently based on an incident in his own teen years) with clarity, an underlying tension and a few moments of grace, while completely immersing us in an East Bay urban youth culture that gathers to watch people doing doughnuts with their cars in a parking lot as the day’s big event. It’s a world of few options or escape hatches, which makes Brandon’s longing for his sneakers — and, seemingly, for that detachment that his astronaut figure represents — ultimately poignant, while the characters of Flaco and Marlon give us more than just standard-issue gangbangers. Tipping may not be sure what he’s trying to say with Kicks, but he does a good job of introducing us to the people and places he wants to talk about.
Kicks is in theaters Friday (September 9).