Back in February, I was struck by the sight of 40 or so individuals camped out on the frigid streets of Toronto. Huddled in their sleeping bags, and layered in clothing that still did not seem warm enough for the biting nighttime wind, they patiently waited for the opening of a Nike pop up store that was still two days away. The juxtaposition of all those people lining up for hours just to be the first to buy a pair of $300 Air Jordan shoes, while a homeless man laid on the sidewalk a little further up on that the same street in a tattered blanket, is an image forever ingrained in my mind.
The unhealthy union between consumerism, modern sneaker culture and the sense of status that comes with each new pair of shoes, or “kicks” as they are referred in some circles, is captured exquisitely in Justin Tipping’s exceptional debut film Kicks. Unlike the affluent individuals who I passed camped out on the street, most of the youth in Kicks are unable to pay for one pair of Air Jordan 1s, let alone multiple. Not that this will stop them from living the dream by all means possible. Set within the poverty stricken East Bay area, a place where the kicks on one’s feet say more about you than having a job or going to an Ivey league college ever would, the film follows Brandon (Jahking Guillory), an insecure 15-year-old, as he longs to be part of the socially elite in his community.
Smaller than most of the kids in his school, the only people who seem to show Brandon the slightest bit of respect are his good friends Albert (Christopher Jordan Wallace) and Rico (Christopher Meyer). Envious of the sneakers that other kids at school have, Brandon will do anything to get his hands on a fly pair of Air Jordan shoes, even if it means buying them out of the back of a van from a less than trust worthy acquaintance. Feeling a brief sense of clout that come with wearing top of the line kicks, Brandon’s confident stride quickly evaporates when some local thugs led by Flaco (Kofi Siriboe), steal his shoes on the way home. Determined to get them back at all costs, Brandon convinces his pals to embark on a journey to the slums of Oakland in hopes of getting his former drug-dealer uncle (Mahershala Ali) to help them track down the dangerous Flaco.
Dripping with style galore, it is easy to be swept away by the visual flare of Tipping’s storytelling. Whether showcasing Brandon’s subconscious through dreamlike astronaut imagery, or showcasing the reckless of youth through the tires burning rubber in slow motion, Kicks jumps off the screen. Tipping does not rest on his visual laurels though. Instead he provides a raw honesty to his characters in this coming-of-age tale that is both chilling and captivating to observe.
As Brandon goes further down the dark rabbit hole in search of his shoes, Kicks shows just how skewed society has become. Manhood is something that is defined by violence rather than responsible action. While sneakers are ideally nothing more than articles of clothing or accessories at best, in the context of the film, they are the anchors keeping the impoverished down. Like the tainted ring in The Lord of the Rings trilogy, a pair of red Air Jordan 1s corrupts everyone who comes into contact with them. They tempt Brandon to resort to violence and sacrifice friendships; make Flaco risk putting his family in jeopardy to prove a point, and cause them both to imprint the vicious cycle of violence and entitlement onto the minds of the younger generation.
The film announces Justin Tipping as a refreshing new voice in cinema who is not only a strong visual storyteller, but also skillfully avoids exploiting his characters. Kicks could have easily been an extended music video, but Tipping ensures that the film never loses sight of its thought-provoking social commentary. The film will have you laughing, cringing, gasping, and in sheer awe of its bold and confident storytelling. A rare case of style and gritty substance merging in a truly wonderful way, Kicks is one of the year’s hidden gems.