Here's a gorgeous and audacious slice of East Bay life that's dreamily attentive to Northern California sun and concrete, to the decrepit beauty of a street couch under a BART station, to the slow thump of cruising stoned with hip-hop bumping, to the way suburb-city edges into city-city and the only way for a broke-ass Richmond kid to envision getting out is in idle fantasy, maybe just floating away, somehow, like a balloon you let go of.
In Justin Tipping's tragicomic humanist sneaker-war lulu Kicks, it's a space suit that represents escape, with the movie's metabolism often sapping to coma levels as life shudders to a halt and an astronaut hovers into frame. It's at first as abrupt and disorienting an image as the home-invasion government spacemen who crash through the windows in E.T., but Richmond — and, later, inevitably, Oakland — isn't Spielbergtown, U.S.A. Here, for scrappy, scrawny high-schooler Brandon (Jahking Guillory), the NASA-uncanny suggests some complex brew of safety, anonymity and, above all, freedom. (A man on the street calls him “Will Smith's-son-lookin' little boy.”) He tells us twice, in voice-over, that even in his dreams he's being chased, and the opening scenes — a bracing tour of Richmond backstreets with bullies in pursuit — back him up. In the heavy-breathing thick of it, though, he'll have his reveries, envisioning a slo-mo spacewalk out of the alleys and playgrounds. Then he gets his ass stomped.
Tipping, who co-wrote with Joshua Beirne-Golden, works in three modes throughout Kicks: sweet coming-of age naturalism; portentous, lyrically expressive zone-outs; and low-budget foot-chase action. A slip of story connects all this, the kind of simple quest narrative that worked for Bicycle Thieves and Pee-wee's Big Adventure: Those red-and-black original-vintage Jordans that Brandon is convinced will change his life? They get yoinked, and he's got to get them back, with the grudging help of big-talking pals Rico (Christopher Meyer) and Albert (Christopher Jordan Wallace, son of Notorious B.I.G, whose “Party and Bullshit” gets recited in awed voice-over with all the reverence that masterwork is due.)
Guillory and his co-stars are funny and compelling together, and Guillory, in his brooding and dramatic moments, proves a screen presence of rare power: He can take the feelings that burn in Brandon and make them burn in viewers, too. Too bad so many of his scenes make him a passive observer of director Tipping's story-stopping stabs at the mythopoetic. Still, some of Tipping's moments of entrancement — usually the ones without the astronaut — are marvelous, especially the lighter, livelier, drug-fueled ones. In an extended low-key daytime party sequence, and a later one involving a hopped-up ride spinning donuts, Tipping suggests the full out-of-time bliss of altered states, especially the way the world seems to glisten with light and new detail.
Tipping's third mode, the street-chase stuff, is the most familiar. He's good at it, but so is most of Hollywood, and here — as in studio films — all the fight-and-flight does wear on. Tipping also never quite weaves these modes together into a coherent whole, and Kicks alternates too often between inspired, not-bad and somewhat trying.