American Fable is ambitious, maybe too much so sometimes, but there's an intense pleasure in the boldness of the film's style.
In a recent Boston Globe article, Ty Burr declared, "Someday we may look back on 2016 as the year the movies died. That’s a blanket statement, but nothing that came out of the multiplex this summer contradicts it." Burr acknowledges that there was a lot to see in the arthouses, but if you only judge the state of the industry on the quality of summer tentpole blockbusters, then yes, movies may seem to be in a very sorry state. But open the lens up a little wider, and there is an entire galaxy of stuff going on—challenging/complex films (where the flaws are more interesting than anything you'd see in a more risk-averse film), first features, foreign films, microbudget films with unknown actors, films doing what films—at their best—have always done. Outside of mainstream Hollywood, 2016 has been a tremendous year, with films like "The Witch," "Cemetery of Splendour," "Krisha," "The Fits," "Everybody Wants Some!!", "The Hunt for the Wilderpeople," "The Nice Guys," "Disorder" (the list goes on) ... You don't even have to go far off the beaten track to find an entire landscape of interesting stories told in unique ways.
"Kicks," director Justin Tipping's feature debut—the story of a teenage boy attempting to get back the sneakers stolen from him—is one of those special films. "Kicks" is not without its flaws, but even the flaws show Tipping's willingness to take risks, to go for the big gesture and to go for it honestly. "Kicks" is a coming-of-age story with many nostalgic callbacks to other films, but it takes place in its own environment, upending the suburban cliche. "Kicks" is knowing and innocent, profound and goofy.
Tipping grew up in the East Bay area of Oakland, and understands first-hand the teenage Cult of Sneakers, sneakers that create and affirm social status, sneakers as powerful signifiers. (Those who judge "bling" and "conspicuous consumption" probably have never wanted for anything in their lives.) Sneakers send a message: "I am somebody." Sneakers also make you vulnerable to those who want what you have. There are sections of "Kicks" that are surreal and dreamlike, where time slows way, way down, and other sequences where the jagged reality of life in the neighborhood is palpable. Tipping and cinematographer Michael Ragen create a subjective and poetic mood from the very first shot, a mood that serves the film—and its pure emotionalism—very well. The point of view is always clear: This is the world as seen by 15-year-old Brandon (Jahking Guillory), smaller in size than most of his classmates, who wishes he was taller, bigger, but most of all wishes he had a great pair of sneakers, specifically the magnificent black and red Air Jordans he sees on another boy's feet in the hallway at school.
Brandon hangs around with his two best friends, ladies' man Rico (Christopher Meyer) and wannabe ladies' man Albert (Notorious B.I.G.'s son, Christopher Jordan Wallace). There are no parental figures in sight. The three young actors have an unforced chemistry with one another, with a very real affection behind it. Each character has quirks that annoy the others (Albert ostentatiously buys extra-large condoms as Rico and Brandon roll their eyes at each other; Albert has never had a girlfriend in his life), but they have one another's backs. Their group dynamic is the glue of the film, and also provides necessary comic relief when things get grim. Brandon saves his money and finally buys an impressive pair of Jordans from a guy selling them out of the back of his truck. Brandon struts out of the house wearing them, like Tony Manero in "Saturday Night Fever," only to get jumped soon after by a gang led by the notorious silver-toothed Flaco (Kofi Siriboe), who steals Brandon's sneakers right off of his feet. Brandon ropes in his reluctant goofball buddies to join him in his quest to get his sneakers back.