A coming-of-age story hijacked by a mean-streets drama, Justin Tipping’s Kicks is less notable for its originality than for how dynamically it blends a few styles that ultimately prove incompatible. The film’s teenage protagonist, Brandon (Jahking Guillory), avoids trouble with his speed and his air of shyness, but bullies and the crack of gunshots still haunt his dreams. “Sometimes I wish I had a spaceship,” he says in the opening voiceover. “I’d hang out in space where it’s quiet, and no one could fuck with me.” First seen in a dreamy slow-motion sequence that brings to mind Gus Van Sant’s Paranoid Park, Brandon appears to be a breed apart from his peers. Kicks turns out, rather troublingly, to be about the lengths he’ll go to fit in.
Despite a dazzling mane of long, bouncing, curly locks, Brandon is a largely invisible presence in his East Bay social patchwork. His high school (bereft of authority figures, as most of the film is) is a site of public fellatio and livestreamed hallway fights, but Brandon’s exploits are limited to stealing malt liquor and drinking them in public with horny best friends Rico (Christopher Meyer) and Alfred (Christopher Jordan Wallace, son of the Notorious B.I.G.). Brandon’s hopes for assimilation are tied to his feet, as he raids old birthday cards and sells candy bars in order to replace his ruddy white trainers with the sneaker head’s holy grail: a pair of “bred” (black and red) Air Jordan 1s. “Did your dick get bigger?” Alfred asks between musical montages of his newly confident friend pacing through wide, derelict streets.
Brandon’s newfound visibility quickly indoctrinates him into the gritty realities of East Bay life. For a while, Kicks’s penchant for slow-motion reverie suggests a natural kinship with Anna Rose Holmer’s The Fits, which sublimates urban-film clichés by focusing on the oblique rituals of teenagers looking to avoid the streets, but Tipping’s feature directorial debut is less offbeat than it initially appears. Despite recurring images of a man in a spacesuit, promising Brandon some sort of liftoff or transcendence, Kicks becomes tethered to brutal new-jack-cinema clichés. After Brandon is beaten and robbed of his Jordans by the gangster Flaco (Kofi Siriboe), the teenager acquaints himself with the local gang culture in order to track down his shoes.
Tipping handles this turn with style and confidence, liberally peppering his film with musical montages that alternately reference Wong Kar-wai and Hype Williams. These pauses come to feel like a crutch, meant to enliven the film between lackadaisical day-in-the-life scenes of gangster life and increasingly disturbing instances of street violence. Kicks’s invocation of San Francisco’s East Bay falls somewhere in the middle of a spectrum between The Wire’s heavily localized, low-key observation of Baltimore and a more trite fetishization of chrome rims, blunts, and female bodies. (The film’s few female characters barely speak, and are unequivocally portrayed as sex objects.)
The filmmakers make room to develop a couple of interesting characters in this milieu (the villain Flaco and Brandon’s uncle, played by Mahershala Ali, are both fearsome characters and fathers), but Kicks’s ruthless forward motion robs Brandon and his friends of agency and nuance. Even Brandon’s imaginary astronaut guardian enables his descent into petty crime, cocking the handgun that leads Brandon into bewilderingly amoral straits. Once Brandon gets his gun, he becomes Tipping’s pawn: a seemingly well-meaning kid who willfully enters into a rigged system, forced to project his might over a defenseless child. It’s a turn that doesn’t scan either as allegory or grim acknowledgment of the realities of gang culture, just a particularly ugly plot device in a film that sacrifices authenticity for the sake of cheap suspense.