By James McAllister

Comedian Demetri Martin once said that “if you put on flip flops, you’re saying: ‘Hope I don’t get chased today’.” Growing up in Oakland, where just taking a wrong turn in a bad neighbourhood could lead to a beating, or worse, Brandon (Jahking Guillory), a spindly & sensitive soul in his mid-teens, lives an impoverished existence where the girls ignore him and even his two best friends, Albert and Rico (Christopher Jordan Wallace & Christopher Meyer), pick on him. On these mean streets, getting hounded is a daily occurrence: “that’s why I don’t wear fucking flip flops,” proclaims Brandon, doggedly.

Brandon naïvely assumes that if he were able to buy the freshest sneakers on the market – the original Black & Red Air Jordan trainers – his peers would finally consider him to be cool. But when a pair comes into his possession, he soon discovers that they only make him a target for the local hood, Flaco (Kofi Siriboe). Having been mugged of his precious J’s, Brandon sets off on a dangerous mission across East Bay, desperately determined to get them back.

There’s an infectious energy to debut director Justin Tipping’s approach that brings to mind the fresh & ambitious zeal of Sean Baker’s Tangerine. The blaring hip-hop soundtrack – Mac Dre, Y.M.T.K., and the Wu-Tang Clan – is wild & intimidating, ferociously amplifying the sustained hostility Brandon faces on his journey. Yet Tipping, working from a script he co-wrote with Joshua Beirne-Golden, is careful to handle the film’s gritty texture with a light touch that allows the charming, naturalistic chemistry shared by the three leads to puncture the heightened atmosphere with adolescent amusement.

At various intervals, Brandon finds himself comforted by the appearance of a faceless astronaut who acts as his theoretical guardian angel. It is, however, little more than a pretentious metaphor that serves to underpin the film’s primary problem. Though adventurous, Tipping’s excessive stylisation suggests a lack of understanding for what makes this genre so arresting. Kicks owes an obvious debt to John Singleton’s Boyz N the Hood, but never can it emulate that film’s perceptive power; there’s plenty of observation, but little original insight on offer here.

Kicks is available for Digital download from Monday 22nd May.

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