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All words: Alan Pyke

What if Terrence Malick turned his meditative, narratively abstract eye on inner-city black America? The result would probably be weirder, longer, more complicated, and less coherent than Kicks, the newest feature from writer-director Justin Tipping.

Tipping depicts his native Oakland in two main cinematic modes: meditative, orchestral sprawl, and steady, plot-serving realism. Brandon, a small-framed school kid in the East Bay, is obsessed with replacing his ratty foot-covers with the black-and-red Jordans. His friends Rico and Albert (Christopher Meyer and Christopher Jordan Wallace) imagine themselves lotharios, but have more in common with their defenseless, unstylish skater friend than they’d care to admit. Brandon loses his prized shoes almost as soon as he gets them, to a street tough named Flaco (Kofi Siriboe), and then appeals fruitlessly to his uncle Marlon (Mahershala Ali) for help.

The plot is almost secondary here. Tipping’s main point – and the main appeal of Kicks as entertainment – is in the bifurcated style of the picture. Half the time he’s showing you Brandon’s imagination, where a space-suited astronaut follows him as though in zero gravity. The camera moves into slow-mo and the lighting/color palette kick into the kind of hyper-stylized painter’s mode you’d expect to see on the stage of a dance performance. Actor Jahking Guillory delivers solemn voice-overs of Brandon’s inner monologue, with cloying results.

When Kicks isn’t taking you inside Brandon’s brain, with solemn strings and slow-mo artistry, its advancing its plot in frank, quick scenes full of jump-cuts and natural light, soundtracked by whatever’s happening around the characters in the moment. It’s here that some of Tipping’s actors – particularly Ali as uncle Marlon – really burn. The House of Cards actor delivers a dead-eyed, hard-edged performance that cuts ideas about family ties and will triumphing over circumstance off at the knees.

The contrasting cinematic modes are eye-catching. Tipping and cinematographer Michael Ragen find some genuinely elegant frames throughout the film. A shot of Brandon creeping nervously down a hallway, shot from below chest height and framed in red and black, is haunting. The closing moments show Brandon and his friends marching up the stairs of a footbridge fenced in with chain link, the camera closes enough to evoke a stairway to heaven that’s been built by prison guards.

It’s clear what Tipping is going for. But it’s harder to say whether or not he nails it. Kicks is an uneven work, flicking between its two primary tonal modes in a way that sometimes feels herky-jerky. A cynic might say it feels like a very long music video, anchored to a plot device so familiar it risks cliché.

But while the slight story and languid pacing might frustrate some viewers, Tipping has achieved something notable here. He’s presented a clump of characters, defined by sizzling poverty and last-resort violence that surround them, without succumbing to the impulse to moralize about any of it.

There aren’t really any good guys or bad guys, just different flavors of in-between. Tipping doesn’t look for excuses or mine judgment about the materialism, deprivation, and unapologetic brute force that define their world. He’s content to tell a story about latchkey kids clinging to fantasies and slightly older grown-ups who style themselves as pragmatists in a chaotic world.

Again, this can break bad if you’re inclined to cynicism, or if you find Tipping’s visual style wearying rather than engaging. Flaco dotes on his own young son, while trying to instill the same hard edge in him. The scenes humanize the movie’s villain slightly, without losing track of the endemic meanness and fatalism of the masculine code that dominates each of the characters’ lives. They are affecting, but they also underline the main strength and weakness of Kicks. Everything is cloaked in a smog of complexity, and everyone is choking on it. Tipping’s delivered an engaging series of observations about that cloud, but they never quite seem to add up to more.

Kicks muddies all possible moral waters around Brandon, his friends, his uncle, and his shoes. But it doesn’t deliver any satisfying resolution. Tipping doesn’t unlock any secrets here. He’s too committed to showing people a world most of us never see.