Imagine having your self-worth and identity depend on a pair of shoes. That, if taken away, would rob you of respect while dehumanizing your day-to-day life.
Directed by Oakland-born-and-raised Justin Tipping, “Kicks” revolves around the life of Brandon (Jahking Guillory) — a 15-year-old whose dream is to get a fresh pair of Air Jordans. When fate smiles upon him and he gets his hands on the prized material possession, it is then stolen by a local “hood.” This leads Brandon and his two fiercely loyal best friends to go on a dangerous mission to win them back.
A movie that was filmed entirely in the East Bay, “Kicks” shows a harsh representation of a culture that is typically, and problematically, portrayed as an idealized version of reality, and the real effects it has on current society.
The film shows the cruel realities that exist in the East Bay, evoking the intense manner in which drugs permeate within a community plagued by social, economic and political inequality. Yet, it consequently defies easy stereotypes of inner city life.
The wishful longing for flashing footwear is analogous to an impoverished lifestyle where people compete hungrily for power. Just as modern society revolves around chasing an aesthetic, the film’s cycle of poverty does the same — portraying a rhythm that cannot be broken, and explaining the importance of the “kicks” to everyone involved.
Although gunshots and violence vividly perpetuate an anxious limbo throughout the plot, the scenes humanize characters like Flaco (Kofi Siriboe) — a dangerous, threatening man that has no limits to the extent to which he resorts to brutality, but also as a surprisingly protective, caring father to his young son. In lieu of the grim manner you may expect, the film is filled with soft humor by illustrating Brandon’s best friends — Albert (Christopher Jordan Wallace) and Rico (Christopher Meyer) — as raucous, smooth romantic magnets for girls.
Yet the jarring actualities of life coincide with Brandon’s magical daydreams of escape — fantasies that are deprived of innocence and potential. And who can blame him? In the film, every day is the same — occupied with bored, aimless young people deprived of ambition to do little beyond smoke, drink and compete aggressively for power. Women symbolize accessories even less than the Air Jordans. As a result, outer space, the void existing between planets, becomes a heavily symbolic and recurring motif of Brandon’s state of being where no one can mess with him. He is free from the nihilistic world by entering his “space.”
In one final scene, when Brandon, represented as the astronaut, lands into his safe haven, he is no longer intimidated or afraid. By physically escaping the position he was in, he does not exemplify the skinny boy who could not play pickup and believed the shoes cost more than his life. Instead, Brandon stands up for himself and erases his insecurities, through and through.
The small-scale drama and naturalistic performances from a considerably younger cast produce a glorious, coming-of-age film that is nothing short of spectacular. Rewarded at the Tribeca Film Festival for its slow motion cinematography, the movie, hoarded with undeniable promise from young cinematographer Michael Ragen, goes beyond one’s personal purview and envelopes poetic, lively flourishes of Brandon’s recurring vision as an astronaut. He conveys the essence of wanting to travel in space — the urge to go beyond what is given to him. A message that seems central to both the film, but also to young kids who grow up in a situation that may be far from ideal.
“Kicks” opens your eyes to the gritty side of sneaker culture and the East Bay in an insightful manner without being incredibly pessimistic. The mournful, heartbreaking themes that do exist portray how one can be transformed when stripped of his or her material possessions. The film aches with the heartbreaking realities of many — a hopelessness that has yet to be destroyed. But thanks to Brandon’s touching story of finding his identity, and his kicks, “Kicks” shows that hope is somewhere out there in the existential space around us.
“Kicks” is now playing at Renaissance Grand Lake Theatre in Oakland.