A pair of vintage Air Jordans take the place of a bicycle in Justin Tipping’s “Kicks,” which updates De Sica’s post-war Rome for the modern day East Bay culture of sideshows and Mac Dre, following a California high school student across the urban expanse as he tries to recover his purloined shoes. An arresting visual experience, “Kicks” has style to spare, and in fact it probably should have spared a little, as this first-time director sometimes crowds his film with more auteurial flourishes than his rather simple story can support. Nonetheless, this is a debut of undeniable promise, both for its director and its largely unknown cast, and its Tribeca bow should be the first of many festival appearances.
Brandon (Jahking Guillory) is a quiet 15-year-old living in the rough Bay Area community of Richmond, facing all the problems of a good kid in a mad city: He’s short, skinny, broke, nervous around girls, and boasts the sort of feminine features and shoulder-length hairstyle that are bound to make him a target. For Brandon, however, all his insecurities are projected downward; to his worn, nearly disintegrating white sneakers.
His buddies – good-looking lothario Rico (Christopher Meyer) and wisecracking Albert (Christopher Jordan Wallace, son of the Notorious B.I.G.) – are better equipped, both physically and sartorially, but Brandon finally manages to save up for a pair of mythical black and red Jordans from a local hustler. He only gets a day to enjoy them, however, before the menacing neighborhood tough guy Flaco (Kofi Siriboe) jumps him and takes off with his kicks, his minions filming and uploading the whole humiliating ordeal to YouTube.
Bloodied but unbowed – as if to underscore the Jordans’ role as stand-ins for masculinity, Brandon is forced to leave the house in his mother’s bedroom slippers – he vows to get them back, even if it means dragging Rico and Albert with him to the mean streets of Oakland to see his former drug-dealer uncle (Mahershala Ali, unnervingly authoritative). By the time he finds himself riding around the flats five-deep with a gun in his waistband, Brandon has clearly gotten in several fathoms over his head, and the tension comes from trying to guess just how much deeper he’s willing to go.
As a character, Brandon is sometimes so introverted that he becomes unreadable, but Guillory plays him with understated empathy, while Wallace and Meyer make for welcome company. Yet the real cast standout is Siriboe, who takes what initially appears to be a stock thug character and keeps opening him up in surprising ways. When we first see Flaco beating up our hero, he seems almost feral; our second glimpse sees him back at home, tenderly gifting Brandon’s shoes to his young son (Michael Smith Jr.). Siriboe plays both sides of the character with deep commitment, and as they slowly meld together, the effect is heartbreaking; with just a few scenes, he suggests an entire parallel narrative, a far sadder rite of passage set on a collision course with Brandon’s. “Kicks” may be Brandon’s story, but Flaco’s arc is the one that stays in your head when the credits roll.
Tipping and editors Dominic LaPerriere and Tomas Vengris keep the film’s pacing and transitions slightly off-kilter throughout, while odd musical juxtapositions (we hear the Wu-Tang Clan’s “C.R.E.A.M.” while Brandon sells candy bars for a dollar apiece) and the stellar camerawork of Michael Ragen help build a sense of creeping hyperreality. (In keeping with the film’s subjective POV, parents, teachers and cops are as invisible as in a “Peanuts” strip.) But unless you’re Terrence Malick – and sometimes even when you are – a little bit of swooning, impressionistic slow-motion goes a long way, and Tipping leans too heavily on dreamlike displays of style that tend to drag the story’s momentum when it should be hurtling forward. A steadily recurring visual metaphor of a floating astronaut proves distractingly clumsy, and chapter titles bearing rap lyrics add little to the narrative.
But when Tipping gets the balance right, he can create images and sequences of real power, and one leaves the film eager to see him continue to calibrate his craft going forward.