Teenage actor Jahking Guillory pretty much steals the show as the central character in Justin Tipping’s “Kicks,” a coming-of-age drama set on some of the grittier streets of Oakland, Calif.
Guillory’s Brandon is a diminutive fellow with a substantial head of hair and borderline androgynous features, all of which are an invitation to trouble in a macho subculture.
Brandon’s a decent kid who’s well aware of being an outsider on the inner-city streets. The boy’s desire for a pair of fancy black-and-red Air Jordans will bring him grief, and the question posed by “Kicks” is whether that experience will turn Brandon into one of the bad guys in the hood.
It’s a simple story, and wisely relies heavily on the likability of Brandon and his two streetwise buddies (played by Christopher Jordan Wallace and Christopher Meyer). Their wisecracks and bragging can be entertaining, but at times the pair seem little more than generic sidekicks.
The trio’s friendship is tested after Brandon hustles up the jack for the high-end footwear he wants, only to be beaten up and have the kicks stolen by a neighborhood thug (Kofi Siriboe) and his gang. Brandon talks his two pals into helping him get his shoes back. But how far will he go — asking politely won’t do much — and what does he really know about the thief, who turns out to be quite an intriguing minor character.
Filmmaker Tipping is clearly eager to make an impression, loading — perhaps overloading — “Kicks” with directorial technique, such as having Brandon interact with an astronaut in full space gear who floats in and out of the movie representing the boy’s desire to rise above it all. New scenes are introduced with titles taken from hip-hop lyrics.
It doesn’t really add up, either as a psychological portrait or moral commentary. Tipping has a definite aptitude for moviemaking — he just needs to focus more on dialogue, storytelling fundamentals and other basics, and ease up on the virtuoso stuff.
“Kicks” has enough going for it that it works as a calling-card movie, and Tipping certainly deserves a chance to improve on it in his next outing.
(At Screenland Crossroads.)
Rated R. Time: 1:20.