Justin Tipping’s 2016 directorial debut Kicks follows Brandon, a 15-year-old young man living in crime-drenched Oakland, California. An outsider at school because of his small and feminine appearance (no doubt due to his long, curly locks), Brandon aspires to some kind of inclusion while daydreaming about being taking away by an astronaut acting as a kind of safety blanket. Upon gaining a pair of rare, expensive Air Jordan sneakers, Brandon’s social status is elevated but when his sneakers are stolen by the neighborhood gangster, Brandon and his two friends embark on a dangerous journey to retrieve them.
Kicks focuses primarily on the culture of masculinity in the black neighborhood, and explores Brandon’s out-of-place nature in this environment. Acquiring status symbols creates a false sense of value in Brandon’s life that influence his poorly thought-out pursuit of retaining that status symbol. Endangering himself and his friends, he begins to learn the true value of what’s important in life and that it has absolutely nothing to do with a pair of shoes. In the exploration of the subject, Justin Tipping showcases the pitfalls of decision and the illogical but tempting culture young black men become trapped into in American inner cities.
Well-photographed and executed, Justin Tipping shows promise as a filmmaker as he is capable of taking stories that likely seem typical of the subject’s environment and spin them with visual finesse. Using the story as a morality play, Tipping aids his viewpoints with visual deviations that border on the surreal but that still manage to guide the subtext. Jahking Guillory’s lead performance is also endearing as he portrays a relative innocent corrupted by the falsehoods of a negative culture. Mashershala Ali, in a role providing a stark contrast from his performance in 2016’s Moonlight, plays the un-apologetically morally corrupt yet strikingly correct barer of bad news as he espouses the reality of consequence in a world in which there is no distinction made between childhood and adulthood.
Although Kicks has a noble subject treated with unique vision and a well-suited cast, it does presents flaws in its progression and sometimes plodding scene staging. It’s not the type of film that will gain a mass audience or a major cult following. Instead, it serves more as a stepping stone for a rookie filmmaker who is above average but has yet to reach their full potential. If anything, Kicks is the blueprint for Justin Tipping’s future work. Hopefully his talents will be recognized and allowed to flourish because if Kicks is any indication, Tipping has the potential for a mix of great stylistic vision and moral substance that is lacking in mainstream Hollywood cinema.