Kicks: Bred to Win, by David Bax

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On paper, Justin Tipping’s Kicks sounds like a pretty standard “coming of age in a lower middle class black American neighborhood” story; indeed, some of that formulaic predictability will eventually hurt the film in its final act. But to experience this movie is to see an early effort from a confident young cinematic voice. Kicks floats ethereally and dabbles in magical realism yet remains rooted in hardscrabble authenticity. Most importantly, it zeroes in with precision on the angst of being a teenager—an age in which one’s peer groups defines one’s social parameters and values—who is uncool in an unremarkable way.

Jahking Guillory plays Brandon, the diminutive tagalong to the attractive and popular Rico (Christopher Meyer) and his gregarious sidekick, Albert (Christopher Jordan Wallace). Brandon believes that a cool pair of shoes will be his ticket to increased status. And it turns out he’s right, at least for a short time. He saves his money and buys a (likely stolen) pair of Air Jordan 1 Bred shoes, after which he is almost immediately more noticed, including by the opposite sex. In less than 24 hours, though, that increased attention turns on him when he’s beaten up at gunpoint and has his new kicks—and his new life—stolen.

Various signifiers of hard lives lived in crime-ridden, minority-populated neighborhoods dot Kicks but Tipping’s eye for naturalism mostly keeps things from swerving into the performed concern of condescending message movies. He provides us a general overview of everyday life, at least for teenagers, in this part of the Bay Area but he also reminds us of these characters’ aspirations. The movie is cut into chapters, each of which features rap lyrics as titles. The hip-hop tracks used throughout the film tell boastful tales of riches, strength and sexual prowess. It’s clear how empowering these fantasies are to the kids on the streets, even if such ideals seems as far away as outer space.

Cinematographer Michael Ragen, who has worked extensively in music videos, is the MVP here. His shiny, wide-angle compositions coast through the cul-de-sacs and houses on Steadicam. There’s an otherworldly, slow motion beauty to the presentation that fills the liminal space between waking life on the ground and the dreamlike imagery and diversions that pepper the movie.

Aiding Ragen is the droning score from the great Brian Reitzell, whose has recently earned some notoriety from his stellar contributions to NBC’s Hannibal series. His work here, though, has more in common with music he wrote for Sofia Coppola’s The Bling Ring. That’s fitting, in fact, as the two films have more in common than might be immediately apparent.

Kicks reaches its climax with a big, cinematic foot chase and showdown that unfortunately feels a tad rote compared to what’s come before. In this section, the film also gets a little bit too diagrammatic in its lessons about the cycle of violence. These missteps aren’t enough, thankfully, to detract from the strong work up to then. In fact, they’re just enough to leave you hopeful for how Tipping might grow as a filmmaker.

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