In the opening minutes of “Kicks,” an Oakland-set coming-of-age film from first time feature director Justin Tipping, it’s clear 15-year-old Brandon (Jahking Guillory) is just a kid looking for a break.
He’s small, gets picked on, and longs to have and be more than he is.
A pair of shoes gets him exactly what he’s looking for.
They’re not just any pair of shoes, of course. They’re a coveted pair Air Jordans, which he buys from a man selling them out of the back of a van.
For a bit, it seems life has given him the validation he was seeking, but just as quickly, it’s taken from him by a group of neighborhood bullies led by a notoriously tough figure named Flaco (Kofi Siriboe). Except this time, Brandon is determined not to let his status symbol go so easily.
The adventure that ensues is on its surface a film about a group of almost-teens fighting back. But a series of twists, bad decisions and an imaginary astronaut help transform the movie into a poignant exploration of violence and masculinity.
The story was inspired by Tipping’s own experience with getting jumped as a teen — a “humiliating rite of passage” in his childhood Bay Area neighborhood.
Tipping remembers his brother trying to comfort him after it happened, telling him “It’s okay, you’re a man now.” As an adult, he wondered why is masculinity synonymous with violence. That’s when “Kicks” was born.
But a rated R movie about young people of color with no role for a big-name celebrity anchor and a silent astronaut wasn’t an easy sell. And Tipping and Joshua Beirne-Golden, his friend and collaborator since film school, weren’t keen on compromising any elements.
“We made it especially difficult for ourselves,” Beirne-Golden told CNN in an recent interview. “It took someone who was going to have a leap of faith that we could do it.”
Once funding was secure, they set out to find their cast. The three male teen stars — Christopher Meyer, Guillory and Christopher Jordan Wallace (son of Biggie Smalls) — were brought to them by their casting director. More minor roles were filled by kids from around the Bay Area, plucked from youth groups and after school programs.
“We saw 100 kids through casting director in LA and you can tell if they’ve been through the whole Nickelodeon or Disney thing,” Tipping said. “That’s one specific tone but we weren’t going for that.”
Casting their astronaut was another hurdle.
In the film, the character follows around Brandon as a guide of sorts — there when things get tough. It’s an unexpected surreal element meant to be a metaphor for “machismo,” says Tipping. As the film goes on, the audience comes to realize Brandon’s protector might not be everything he’s cracked up to be.
In real life, “machismo” was actually played by a woman.
“She was a dancer,” Beirne-Golden said of actress Molly Shaiken, “which was really important because of the way we executed it.”
The goal was to find someone who could mimic weightlessness — because the first-time feature makers didn’t have a Christopher Nolan visual effects budget.
“[In one scene], we couldn’t put in a rig and let her actually float, so she literally had to pretend to float,” Tipping said. “She was amazing.”
The filmmakers admit the mix of elements in “Kicks” may strike some as unexpected. But that’s exactly what they set out to do in making a film they hope will start a conversation about youth, violence, and what young boys are being taught about masculinity.
“I think ultimately we just were looking to ask a lot of questions,” Beirne-Golden said.
Tipping added: “I think it’s our job and duty as artists to challenge and question what is actually happening, even if that’s a bittersweet reality.”
“Kicks” debuts in theaters Friday.