“Good kid, mad city,” reads one of several intermittent chapter headings in “Kicks,” the debut feature from writer-director Justin Tipping. While the line paraphrases Kendrick Lamar, it aptly sums up the essence of Tipping’s slick, engaging drama about an inner-city kid eager to recover his stolen shoes. An urban adventure story based around the world’s most charming MacGuffin, “Kicks” has almost too much grittiness for its own good, but its petite go-getter’s appeal easily smooths over many of the film’s rougher edges.
Tipping constructs a lyrical atmosphere that suggests Terrence Malick for the hip-hop set, with cinematographer Michael Ragen’s roaming camera capturing its young lead as he wanders about the neighborhood streets, while addressing the audience in a plaintive voiceover. However, “Kicks” mainly belongs to newcomer Jahking Guillory, as young Brandon, an eager little squirt with a blossoming afro whose entire worldview is shaped by the things he can’t have. Early on, that need is epitomized by a shiny pair of black-and-red first edition Air Jordans, which he spots on the feet of one upperclassman at his school in the midst of a slo-mo brawl. Idolizing the violence and the style at once, his widening eyes tell the whole story.
Guillory’s ability to embody the intensity of his obsession, despite its simplicity, speaks the commanding screen presence he’s immediately able to establish. A major discovery, he single-handedly carries the movie by exuding bald-faced ambition in every scene. In Brandon’s world, the shoes mean everything, and “Kicks” does a fine job of elaborating on that narrow perspective. Aiding Brandon in his neighborhood adventures are a pair of goofy older boys, whose colorful means of explaining to him the way of life allow for a recurring source of comic relief. In his narration, Brandon introduces us to Rico (Christopher Meyer), a lackadaisical stoner, “but he’s still ripped”; Albert (Christopher Jordan Wallace), the Lou Costello to Rico’s Bud Abbott, is a fast-talking wannabe singer and virgin.
As guides to the unseemly streets of his low-income hood, Rico and Albert aren’t the most reliable sources of wisdom, so Brandom mostly takes care of his business alone — mainly by seeking out a black market solution to make his dream of Air Jordans come true. At first, his acquisition seems too good to be true: In short order, he’s gliding across the park, dazzling a local lady and dancing circles around his peers with his new acquisition.
But just as the street giveth, it taketh away: En route to a rendezvous with his new female companion, Brandon’s assaulted by the unruly gangster Flaco (Kofi Siriboe), who drops the kicks in his trunk along with other plundered loot and jets away. Bruised up and seething with rage, Brandon launches on an unlikely warpath to retrieve his prized possession.
So far, so intriguing, but “Kicks” never fully delivers on this enticing premise. Rather than sticking to its lovable protagonist’s singular mission, Tipping reduces the material to a shoot-’em-up thriller that hijacks the more observant character study at its core. Flaco amounts to a one-note villain whose cartoonishly violent streak doesn’t quite click. One could argue that this embellished quality reflects Brandon’s own reductive view of his surroundings, but it’s still a distraction from the film’s stronger elements.
More problematically, Tipping stumbles on attempts to inject the material with by-the-numbers whimsy, typified by the image of an astronaut whom Brandon envisions as the epitome of his otherworldly aspirations, or something to that effect. “Kicks” stands on sturdier ground when it lands on poeticized images with a natural connection to Brandon’s world — for instance, rolling down the street on a bike with a 40 oz. bottle of malt liquor and gazing into the distance, unsure of his prospects but eager to succeed just the same.
Tipping’s eye for such tender moments don’t quite gel with the brutal showdowns that constitute the movie’s big showdown, but that alone allows the latter developments to operate as a kind of reality check. No matter how sweet its hero comes across, ultimately he must face a merciless world to get what he wants. His materialistic fixation on a pair of fancy shoes isn’t just a petty need; it’s a generational statement.
“Kicks” premiered at the 2016 Tribeca Film Festival. Focus World will release it this year.