Movie Review: "Kicks," with Jahking Guillory, Mahershala Ali, and Kofi Siriboe
What Sex and the City did for Manolo Blahniks -- examining their status in a particular population -- Kicks does for Jordans. These are more than simply shoes, they're street-cred currency, and director Justin Tipping and his co-writer Joshua Beirne-Golden explore all the ways urban culture -- masculinity, sexism, childhood, and the drug war -- are tied up together.
The film takes some surprisingly hard turns (there are more than a couple of shots fired), but what it captures about being a black teenager in America is sometimes quite powerful. Although some cinematic tricks are overused, like slow-motion party sequences and an imaginary astronaut that appears in pivotal moments for the protagonist, Kicks ultimately feels like a quite honest portrait of a particular time and a particular place. Despite some shortcomings, its genuineness is paramount.
Focused on the young Brandon (Jahking Guillory) in the East Bay city of Richard, California, the film follows him as he scratches together enough money to buy a pair of Jordans, only to have them stolen by the older Flaco (Kofi Siriboe). With his silver grill -- complete with pointy fangs -- and supporting crew, Flaco isn't one to be messed with, but after years of being bullied for his smaller size and long hair, Brandon is done taking other poeple's shit.
Still, he needs help, and that comes at first in the form of his best friends: the muscular lady's man Rico (Christopher Meyer) -- "Guys don't fuck with him, but girls do," Brandon says -- and the chubby, aspiring musician Albert (Christopher Jordan Wallace), who talks constantly about sex in the way that only a virgin can. Their days are usually the same: hang out at the basketball court, try to woo girls (who are invariably called "bitches"), mess around with recording music in makeshift closet studios, stealing 40s from the corner store, and riding around on their bikes. It's a teenage existence that seems simultaneously low-tech (cell phones and laptops are rarely used) but grown-up, with excessive drug use and sexual activity as the norm.
But things change when Brandon buys a pair of red and black Jordans -- gleefully and triumphantly flinging his old, outgrown, dirty white sneakers onto the lines above -- and then almost immediately is beat up and embarassed by Flaco. Determined to get his shoes back, Brandon goes on the offensive: attacking one of Flaco's minions, learning that Flaco lives in Oakland, and traveling there to reconnect with his Uncle Marlon (Mahershala Ali), who went to prison years before on a drug charge but who understands the neighborhood in a way Brandon doesn't.
For Brandon, the solution seems easy: receive intel and help from Uncle Marlon, find Flaco, and get his shoes back. But he doesn't consider the intangibles, either, or how quickly the situation escalates. He doesn't realize that Uncle Marlon will flatly refuse to help him, or that he has a gun that Brandon can steal. He doesn't know that Uncle Marlon's two sons, Brandon's cousins, will offer to assist, taking him to a local hang-out and resulting in someone's death. And he doesn't understand how deep he's going to get, or how Uncle Marlon's advice will haunt him: "You got a problem, handle that shit yourself."
The greatest moments of Kicks are in its details, which display a deep understanding of the film's own characters and the culture in which they live. Brandon gets a lot of this attention, like his wary face when a shoestore employee tells him the sneakers he likes "don't make kids' sizes"; his constant dreams about being chased, a nighttime ritual reliving his years of getting bullied; and the floral slides he picks from his mother's closet when his Jordans get stolen. There are also a number of memorable lines in the often-vulgar script, with Albert getting the most hilariously gross lines, like "You gonna put it in her bootyhole?" You understand how these three teenagers would be friends with each other, and how their crystallizing identities would come into conflict easily and often.
The world is further sketched out with the film's use of music (songs by Nas, Kendrick Lamar, and Tupac) and its dedication to its subject -- every time a character is introduced, we get a long glimpse at their shoes -- but there are elements here that are clearly better than others. Ali, in particular, is excellent as Marlon, a man who has seen the worst of the world and understands that the path Brandon is pursuing is the wrong one. When, late in the film, Brandon returns to him, Marlon's matter-of-fact "You probably still gonna die" is both guiltily funny and unbelievably sad, and he adds a maturity that the film needs.
Even at 87 minutes, though, Kicks feels somewhat fluffed. Is this enough of a narrative to last a full movie? Its details are ultimately more impactful than the main story; a few party scenes go on too long, and the film's constant sexism -- practically every female character is here for sexual objectification -- is grating.
Yet its great triumph is how it makes you realize that a child like Brandon could very easily become an adult like Flaco, and how the idea that "your foot game is everything in this world" is part of a larger web of influences that can go dark very, very quickly. For a movie ostensibly about shoes, Kicks plunges into the depths of urban masculinity memorably and well.