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.
Getting the sneakers back takes them to many wild and unfamiliar places (namely, Oakland), where the boys meet up with Brandon's terrifying and yet wise ex-con Uncle Marlon (Mahershala Ali, in a brilliant Mariana-Trench-deep performance), and Brandon's two stoner cousins, willing to help out their much-younger relative. Flaco is such bad news that everybody warns Brandon off, tells him to let the sneakers go, but Brandon declares, "They're not just shoes. They're fucking J's." Nobody really can argue with that. Once in Oakland, the boys plunge into a whirlwind, funny and scary and confusing. One of the strongest elements of the script (co-written by Tipping and Joshua Beirne-Golden) is that Flaco ends up having complexity of his own because Tipping doesn't just follow Brandon, he also follows the sneakers: we see where Flaco puts them, we see who Flaco gives them to. This choice gives "Kicks" an undercurrent of thought-provoking ambivalence.
The film opens with Brandon admitting in voiceoever that he has always dreamt of going into space, where it is quiet, where no one can mess with you. He dreams of a "spaceman" companion, a guardian angel astronaut who floats down into the middle of scenes, hovering over the streets, appearing at Brandon's side, encouraging Brandon silently, or just standing watch over his charge. Brandon's wishes for himself—freedom, quiet, to be left alone—is almost as strong as his wish for cool sneakers. Tipping picks and chooses the astronaut appearances very carefully, and so when the spaceman does appear it's not a gimmick or a device. It's the whole point. The astronaut, with mirrored helmet, hovers over the chaos, beckoning Brandon down this or that path. Sometimes the astronaut urges some pretty sketchy choices, but that's evidence that Brandon is, after all, only 15 years old. He wants to fit in, he also wants to be his own person. How do you reconcile those two things? The adolescent conundrum.
At a certain point along the journey, Brandon steals a gun, in case he needs it for later. The Chekhov's gun plot point is not a fatal flaw, but it is a flaw. So much of "Kicks" ricochets along on its own energy, from hallucinations to chase scenes, to party scenes, to group conversations. The gun comes from a less imaginative, less personal movie, and the tension it generates is empty. But the weird thing about a flaw in a movie like "Kicks," is that it highlights just how good, how strong, the rest of it really is. Elia Kazan talked and wrote constantly about the "spine" of his films, and how that spine had to be evident in every scene, every character, every moment. Once he understood the spine, it led him to the artistic choices he made. It takes an extremely clear vision to pull that off, and Tipping has that clear vision. This is a beautiful film and a major directorial debut.