Kicks is what 2015's overhyped Sundance favorite Dope tried to be and failed: A trio of nerdy African-American youth come to grips with their adulthood as they navigate the violent and ugly urban surroundings they're struggling to escape from. Dope had a promising start, kind of a remake of Menace II Society with characters from Scott Pilgrim Vs. The World as the protagonists. Yet where Dope turned into a convoluted mess as it got too deep into its desperately over-complicated plot, Kicks director Justin Tipping, showing great promise with his first feature, keeps his eye on the ball as he constructs a necessarily paper thin plot that allows him to focus on themes about what it means to take the first steps into adulthood within such a harsh environment.
Kicks tells the story of Brandon (Jahking Guillory), a meek sneaker nerd who escapes into his fantasies about leaving the planet with an imaginary astronaut, a coping mechanism for living in Richmond, California, one of the roughest and crime-ridden cities in the US. Being from the East Bay, I can't even begin to tell you how notorious Richmond is. One of the clearest examples of good character development relies on the director's ability to get the audience to identify with that protagonist's goals and desires. I don't care one bit about shoes or sneakers. Hell, I'd wear cardboard boxes on my feet if polite society would let me. But the way Tipping depicts Brandon's obsession with sneakers as a status symbol, fetishizing the shoes with glossy close-up shots while badass 90s hip-hop blares through the soundtrack, puts us directly into his mindset.
This type of culturally specific but universally relatable approach is also prevalent during naturally written and acted scenes between Brandon and his best friends Albert (Christopher Jordan Wallace), a virgin wannabe R&B singer, and Rico (Christopher Meyer), a player who constantly tries to get his friends laid. The banter between these characters feels so organic and interesting, that I could have watched them for the duration of the film without any plot elements rearing in. But they do rear in, as Brandon's brand new Air Jordan 1's are stolen by a ruthless gangster named Flaco (Kofi Siriboe), propelling Brandon and his friends to leave their relative comfort zone and finally enter the violent world that surrounds them in order to retrieve the shoes.
From this point on, the structure following the trio moving from one location to another in search of the shoes does become a bit repetitive, especially thanks to Tipping's somewhat annoying affinity for inserting a slow-motion hip-hop party montage in every sequence, but the film breaks through this episodic approach by sticking to Brandon's regretful journey into adulthood, as symbolized by his relationship with the imaginary astronaut. These scenes provide the film with some of its captivatingly creative imagery, while easing us towards an emotionally ambiguous ending that can be seen as triumphant or depressing, depending on your outlook.
The 1080p transfer of Kicks' expertly framed 2:35:1 aspect ratio is represented beautifully through this transfer. The East Bay has a cold, almost industrial feel to it, so the bleak colors of Brandon's environment clash effectively with his shiny fantasy world. All of these elements are captured clearly and without any noticeable video noise.
The DTS-HD 5.1 mix is very front heavy, but it comes to life, especially through the subwoofer, whenever the old school hip-hop tracks fill the soundtrack. The dialogue is clear, and the mix is represented well.
One on One: A glorified 2-minute trailer with short comments by the cast and crew. Pretty useless.
We also get a Photo Gallery.
Kicks is an assured first feature from a director who shows a lot of promise. Even though it follows a fairly simple plot, its' unique style and focus on the themes of the story turns it into a refreshing and engaging experience.