New York Times Review: In ‘Kicks,’ the Promise (and Perils) of Those Air Jordans

Teenage life in the East Bay neighborhood of Richmond, the setting ofJustin Tipping’s promising debut feature film, “Kicks,” is so rough that it’s little wonder that the movie’s 15-year-old protagonist, Brandon (Jahking Guillory), fantasizes that he is watched over by an imaginary spaceman. Because Brandon is small for his age and has delicate features, he is a natural target for bullies. Lacking the macho swagger of his peers, he is not a romantic magnet for the girls who throw themselves at his friends. He dwells in an anxious limbo where the harsh realities of big-city life coincide with a childlike longing for a magical escape.

The astronaut, invisible to everyone but him, is a faceless visitor in a crumply spacesuit who floats down from above. He suggests a manifestation of an innocence the boy is not quite ready to surrender. At the same time, Brandon, who occasionally narrates the film, raps his story in a hard-boiled hip-hop argot.



Movie Review: ‘Kicks’

The Times critic Stephen Holden reviews “Kicks.”

By AINARA TIEFENTHÄLER and Meg Felling on Publish DateSeptember 8, 2016. Photo by Focus World NYTCREDIT:.

The appearances of Brandon’s fantasy watchdog lend “Kicks” a hallucinatory gloss, infusing the film with a pathos symbolized by Brandon’s wishful longing for flashy footwear. His beat-up white sneakers are falling apart. Were he to possess a pair of red-and-black Air Jordans, he would be a big shot — with the shoes conferring instant status. Hoarding pennies, nickels and dimes, he is finally able to purchase them. And for a short time, he confidently strides the neighborhood streets and playgrounds.

His pride and sense of belonging end, however, when he is attacked, and his shoes are stolen by Flaco (Kofi Siriboe), who, in turn, gives them to his preadolescent son, Jeremiah (Michael Smith Jr.). Having already thrown away his old sneakers, Brandon is reduced to the humiliation of wearing his mother’s bedroom slippers. The theft and its effects are strongly reminiscent of Vittorio De Sica’s “The Bicycle Thief.”

“Kicks” follows Brandon as he enlists his two best friends — Rico (Christopher Meyer), a smoothie, and Albert (Christopher Jordan Wallace), a raucous, boastful clown — to accompany him on a mission to retrieve the shoes. Along the way, they visit Brandon’s Uncle Marlon (Mahershala Ali), who has a gun that Brandon surreptitiously pockets.



Trailer: ‘Kicks’

A preview of the film.

By FOCUS WORLD on Publish DateSeptember 8, 2016. Photo by Focus World.Watch in Times Video »

What follows is not a cut-and-dried urban horror story. There are gunshots and violence, but “Kicks” doesn’t take the easiest route. It humanizes Flaco, who, when first seen, is wearing a polished-silver grill that gives him a demonic-looking smile. In his interactions with his son, Flaco is shown to be a caring father.

The characters have enough dimension to avoid appearing to be symbols of a social tragedy, and the movie’s relative gentleness makes the harsher realities of Brandon’s world all the more distressing. “Kicks” portrays an insular culture of poverty and violence in which bored, aimless young people do little beyond smoking dope, drinking beer and competing for power.

For one magical moment, its hip-hop soundtrack is interrupted by a dreamy blast from the past, when the lush 1974 Blue Magic hit “Sideshow” is heard during a “sideshow” exhibition, at which rowdy teenagers spin their cars in circles. Four decades have passed since such sweet R&B ballads flooded the airwaves, and the distance between then and now makes you nostalgic for a soaring teenage romanticism that has all but disappeared.

“Kicks” is rated R (Under 17 requires accompanying parent or adult guardian) for violence, drug and alcohol use and sexual content. Running time: 1 hour 20 minutes.