Monday, September 19, 2016
GOOD KID MAD CITY: a review of "Kicks"
Screenplay Written by Justin Tipping & Joshua Beirne-Golden
Directed by Justin Tipping
**** (four stars)
When I was perhaps 10 years old, my bicycle was stolen.
Growing up on the southwest side of Chicago during the 1970's/1980's felt to be...well..a normal upbringing. I was, more or less, able to go where I pleased without fear. My friends and I could roam the neighborhood from day until long past the streetlights illuminated my surroundings. By my teenage years, I often walked or rode my bike with headphones strapped to my ears without a care in the world.
Certainly, and knowing fully well that this was indeed Chicago, I did have to have a set of street smart wits about myself. I instinctively knew the locations to where I should not tread or how far I could or should actually venture from home. I knew the neighbors whom I could trust if my parents were not immediately available. Yet, even so, I was not immune to any sinister elements. There were older kids who bullied my friends and I once in a great while. And at some points, all of us, myself included, became involved in some sort of neighborhood fight. While gangs like The Disciples and The Blackstone Rangers were heard of, and even hushed about between friends, I can honestly say that I never saw any gang activity. But, the knowledge of their existence did inform me to look over my shoulder now and then and I seemed to develop an innate ability to know just how to avoid any and all hot spots, for if there was going to be any trouble, I wanted to be as far away from it as possible. Yet, as it happens sometimes, trouble found me.
Behind my house, there was a long alleyway where my friends and I would play every day and at the end of the block, there sat a vacant lot where we would play variations of baseball and kickball, ride skateboards and bikes, or do absolutely nothing at all for the entire day. One day, as we rode our bikes around and around, we noticed a small group of bigger, tougher boys who were unfamiliar to us riding into our lot. Taking note, we covertly attempted to quietly leave the vacant lot. I was last in line and before I knew it, one of the boys grabbed the rear handle on my bicycle, punched me in the side, knocking from my bike onto the pavement and rode away with my bike.
All of this happened in a matter of seconds and soon my friends returned to find me shell shocked on the ground. They led me back home where I told my parents what had happened. While my Mother phoned the police, my Father had other ideas. Grabbing not one but two Louisville Slugger baseball bats from the basement, he sternly said to me, "Let's go!" and off we went into the car on the hunt for the boys who stole my bicycle. I have no memory of how long we were gone but I can easily remember the heat from my Father's rage radiating from him as he was ready to bash in some heads. Me, on the other hand, was just a scared kid who already wanted to forget that anything had happened. We never found the boys. We never even found the bicycle, even after making an official report to the police. And again, I just wanted to forget all about it, as I just felt so weak and small, despite the heft of my size, and most of all ashamed that I was unable to defend and protect myself in front of my friends, my family or just for myself.
Those memories returned to me as I watched "Kicks," the stunning, harrowing debut feature film from Director Justin Tipping that explored and combined, to an often hallucinogenic yet powerfully primal degree, the coming-of-age film, an urban thriller, a dark fable, the cosmic, the surreal and the ruthlessly raw. Tipping provided an urgent sense of cinematic confidence that is rare for a first feature, one that pinned me to my seat in often sobering degrees due to its social-political aesthetic that was simultaneously dreamlike yet journalistic. Again, I urge you to stretch outside of your movie going comfort zones and seek out this small, independent film that will indeed provide you with a gut punch to send you reeling in more ways than one.
Set in urban California, "Kicks" stars the intensely charismatic and reticent Jahking Guillory as Brandon, a 15-year-old who announces to us within his subdued narration that "Even in dreams, I dream that I am being chased." In his environment, Brandon is indeed an outcast. With his long, flowing curls, and small stature, the boy carries an unintentionally androgynous appearance. He is quiet, unathletic, unpopular, nearly invisible to girls and a would be target for more dangerous types if not for the fact that he is quick on his feet, albeit in a pair of tennis shoes nearing disintegration. Despite having two best friends in the muscular, athletic, popular with the ladies Rico (Christopher Meyer) and the mouthy, would-be rapper Albert (Christopher Jordan Wallace-son of the late Notorious B.I.G.), Brandon is often teased, hazed and constantly left behind to his thoughts, often occupied by the presence of a lonely astronaut floating away in the quiet of the very space Brandon wishes to escape to.
Desiring, something, anything to assist his acceptance among his peers, Brandon decides to purchase a pair of vintage Air Jordans. Collecting spare change around his home plus birthday gift money and earning funds some selling candy bars on the street, Brandon earns the money for the shoes but is discouraged that he is nowhere near the full retail price. While despondently walking home, Brandon is accosted by a neighborhood charlatan selling stolen goods from his van--including the very coveted pair of red and black Air Jordans, which he is then able to purchase.
Finally feeling a sense of pride, Brandon, now adorned with the shoes struts into his surroundings with a newfound confidence with his friends as well as with girls. Yet, on his way home, on the very first day of wearing his new shoes, Brandon is surrounded and beaten to the ground by a group of older, tougher, meaner and armed boys led by Flaco (Kofi Siriboe), who ultimately steal his shoes.
Consumed with revenge, Brandon plots to track down Flaco and regain his shoes at any and all costs.
Justin Tipping's "Kicks" is as impressive and remarkable a debut feature as I have ever seen as the film greatly succeeds via a variety of elements from the double meaning of the film's ironically laced title, to its multi-layered moods and textures, the downright stunning, dreamlike slow-motion cinematography by Michael Ragen, Composer Brian Reitzell's evocative score and the first rate performance by young Jahking Guillory who conveys a world of emotions while armed with scant dialogue and riveting subtlety.
As Brandon, Guillory perfectly conveys the desperate inner world of a good kid trapped within an environment he never made who only wishes to fit in and is soon consumed by a blind rage and relentless tunnel vision yet without possessing any foresight to the larger consequences of his actions and how they will play out for his friends, enemies and his community at large.
Utilizing the fetishization of shoe culture as a metaphorical symbol of status, pride and manhood, "Kicks" explores the continuing desolation of the 21st century African-American communities within the inner cities of this nation. Tipping, without any sense of hyperbole but with a more journalistic, matter-of-fact directorial eye, presents us with an urban nightmare, eons away from the world I grew up in. Returning to the story of my stolen bicycle, I had my Father present to aid me (although the consequences if we had caught up to those boys would have been devastating to say the least). Furthermore, regarding the ones to stole my bike, I was only the recipient of a strong, surprising gut punch and not on the receiving end of a bullet.
Within "Kicks," adults of any positive influence are never seen and any conceivable opportunities to better oneself are even less so. This is a world where schools are an afterthought, job opportunities are non-existent, and drugs, alcohol, guns and violence rampantly permeate the neighborhoods. Every single character within the film addresses each other with all manner of racial epithets and derogatory language plus taunts, threats, humiliations augmented by sudden and surprising acts of explosive violence. And even when Brandon is beaten down and his shoes are stolen, his attack is filmed and later uploaded to You Tube. In a world such as this one, where hopelessness is abound, what is there left to do but to feed off of each other? "Kicks" presents us with the brutal realities that occur when living in an unforgiving landscape and people are forced to endure a merciless, Darwinian existence. Tipping nails the numbing inhumanity and devaluation and desensitization of life profoundly, therefore cementing the film's overall sense of humanity with a bubbling, burning rage.
Yes, the activities we see throughout the film are entirely self-destructive but "Kicks" is largely a story of survival within the death and dying of inner city African-American communities, making Tipping's film the next piece of a cinematic social-political journalistic think piece chronicling the life and times of our nation's Black neighborhoods as witnessed in films like The Hughes Brothers' "Menace II Society" (1993), John Singleton's "Boyz N The Hood" (1991), Ryan Coogler's "Fruitvale Station" (2013) and especially several "joints" of Spike Lee's filmography, including "Crooklyn" (1994), "Clockers" (1995), "Red Hook Summer" (2012) and "Chi-Raq" (2015).
Furthermore, "Kicks" feels to be the perfect film to arrive in the still vibrant and righteously essential "Black Lives Matter" movement for as we regard Brendan and his environment, if one does not feel empathy, anger and shame for allowing American citizens to exist in such a cauldron in what is supposed to be the greatest country on the planet, then, we as a full American culture need to perform some deep cleansing and serious re-evaluation of our history and levels of intolerance and acceptance or lack thereof. The sights of such callous behavior and disregard for human life (a shot of an infant laying upon a bed just within reach of a loaded gun, for instance) with an endless cycle of abuse, degradation, despair, and of course verbal and physical violence should be more than enough to jolt viewers out of any self-induced stupor regarding our society and national community and Justin Tipping's "Kicks" seethes with world weary indignation. No wonder Brandon wishes he could be lost in space.
On a more individual and therefore existential level, "Kicks" utilizes the fetishization of shoe culture to represent a metaphorical symbol of status and manhood, specifically Black manhood in the ghetto. What does it mean to be a man in this fight or flight environment? For Brandon, who is constantly caught in the throes of peer pressure and the standard bouts of male bonding/hazing by his friends, the humiliation of having his shoes stolen combined with any sense of athletic/sexual inadequacy he feels inwardly provides the seriously misguided fuel for his revenge mission. Yet, throughout the film, Brandon is exposed to a full range of male behavior he feels forced to cloak himself within in order to retain his shoes. His pursuit of Flaco is utterly foolish yet surprisingly fearless as his every move is designed to prove to himself, plus his friends, his out-of-prison O.G. Uncle Marlon (an excellent Mahershala Ali) and community, that he is not weak or a pushover but on the contrary, one who has been decidedly underestimated. Yet, what he does not seem to realize that in this world, being a an will not end with the possible retrieval of his shoes. His battle will only continue as Flaco retaliates, potentially leaving either one or both of them dead.
And even so, the character of Flaco is far from existing as a one note villain as Tipping ensures that we gather an insight into his interior life. For you see, Flaco is a Father to a small son, and devotedly so, making the spoils of his thefts not only gifts to his child, they are symbols of his manhood as being able to provide for his family. If Brandon becomes successful in stealing his shoes back from Flaco, what does it mean to be a man in front of his own son who might witness his defeat, especially from someone who is physically smaller?
The war between Brandon and Flaco as presented in "Kicks" is concerned about much, much more than a pair of shoes and in turn, so is Tipping's briskly paced, visually striking, emotionally sobering film as a whole. Once again, I turn to you to stretch a bit regarding your movie viewing and just give some support to a motion picture that is riveting, exceedingly well acted, written and filmed and possesses an urgent voice and story of fierce originality and presentation.
Justin Tipping's "Kicks" is one of the best films that I have seen in 2016.