For 15-year-old Brandon (Jahking Guillory), the frizzy-haired, undersized kid protagonist of Justin Tipping's agile feature debut "Kicks," navigating adolescence and a rough, depressed Oakland neighborhood is like working a double shift that doesn't pay. He's got a status-bump goal, though, and the phrase "clothes make the man" isn't specific enough.
Convinced his problems of being poor, picked on and ignored by girls will be solved by the holy grail for sneaker fanatics — black-and-red (or "bred") Air Jordan 1s — Brandon scrounges enough money to buy a pair. But if you've seen the Italian neo-realist classic "Bicycle Thieves" — one of Tipping's metaphoric inspirations — you know what awaits the newly shod Brandon when he runs into a severe-looking crew on a lonely stretch of concrete.
"Kicks" is that kind of fascinatingly uneven indie only children of gritty urban life know how to make when they're ready to pick up a camera and engage with their past. As a teenager, Tipping, an East Bay native and American Film Institute graduate, once got jumped for his Nikes and bristled at the idea that his beating was called a rite of passage.
The agreeably stylish movie emerging from that experience loves and hates the psychological trappings of street survival. The contradiction is interesting enough, but it doesn't entirely help smooth over the director's ill-conceived flourishes — a reliance on slow-motion, for example, as if it were about to be made illegal.
The jarring tone starts with how despairingly simple Brandon's view of his masculine pride is and how dangerous his reaction is to having the Jordans stolen: He's willing to venture into violence-ridden Bay Area territory and confront the culprit, a ripped, animalistic figure named Flaco (Kofi Siriboe), to get them back.
Brandon's knee-jerk odyssey veers dangerously close to being too stupid to enjoy watching — you want to protectively yell "Go home!" to the screen, especially when a gun enters the picture. But newcomer Guillory has the right combination of vulnerability and quiet anger to keep us invested, and side details give Brandon's journey admirably complicated pauses.
Looking for Flaco, Brandon seeks advice from his tough, 'hood-respected uncle (a rock-solid Mahershala Ali), who sternly tells him to handle his business himself, all while exercising the arm of his incapacitated, vacantly smiling grandmother — the scene cleverly suggests that one's "business" changes as life's responsibilities accumulate. And though Flaco looked fearsome laying a beating on Brandon, a glimpse of his home life shows who the stolen Jordans were for: a young son on a bare mattress who loves his daddy. The resonance of Siriboe's commanding performance is in suggesting that his criminal ferocity has a tucked-away desperation attached.
Other elements aren't handled as effectively. Brandon's two friends — smiling player Rico (Christopher Meyer) and wisecracking Albert (Christopher Jordan Wallace, son of the late rapper Notorious B.I.G.) — come off more like regulation sidekicks and aren't as funny as Tipping thinks they are. Even more problematic, the movie's portrayal of women is a little too in line with how every male in the movie sees them: as sex objects who have to be told to "shut up." One can still tell a cautionary tale of warped machismo without reducing females to dimensionless playthings.
The most curious touch is the recurring appearance of an imaginary astronaut (more slo-mo), who represents for Brandon escape, or solitude, or confidence. It's never entirely clear and mostly feels like a distracting reach for artiness when Tipping's already assured handling of the escalating dread of Brandon's misadventure shows visual punch — he's clearly a burgeoning talent with material that's both grimly naturalistic and pulse-pounding. On that front, he's aided by a hip hop/R&B soundtrack that rarely goes for obvious top notes and instead feels almost subconscious, even funny at times. (Blue Magic's circus-inspired soul lament "Sideshow" plays over a set piece depicting another kind of sideshow: East Bay drivers performing doughnuts in a parking lot.)
Perhaps the best thing you can say about "Kicks" is that its strengths and weaknesses make for intriguing bedfellows, like a cautionary fable that's as much about the hazards of forging an artistic authenticity as it is the pitfalls of a corrosive approach to manhood.
MPAA rating: R, for violence, drug/alcohol use and language throughout, and sexual content involving teens.
Running time: 1 hour, 27 minutes