Two movies with major Bay Area connections are being released this month, and despite their differences, the gritty narrative Kicks and the provocative documentary Author: The JT Leroy Story are each entertaining and compelling.
Kicks is a tightly focused, creatively rendered coming-of-age story set in the East Bay, primarily the economically depressed inner-city neighborhoods of Richmond and Oakland. Tough yet tender, it was made in bravura indie style with tension, compassion, and wit by director and co-screenwriter Justin Tipping, who was born and raised in Oakland. The story concerns an odyssey undertaken by 15-year-old Brandon — played by an impressive newcomer, Jahking Guillory — when his pricey sneakers (or “kicks,” in the patois) are snatched by a hood in the ‘hood. That happens shortly after Brandon, a poor, essentially decent kid, takes all of his hard-earned cash and purchases the shoes from a hustler on the block.
Small in size, but trying to cultivate a little swagger and impress a girl he likes, Brandon thinks the sneakers will elevate his stature, and he’s humiliated by their loss and the abuse he receives from his peers as well as the thug who rips him off. As a result, he’s determined to regain what’s his, safety be damned. The proceedings also involve Brandon and his two best friends, companions on the quest, learning hard lessons about growing up in a disadvantaged, dangerous realm, about the burden of loyalty, and about the cost of coveting possessions at the expense of one’s own well-being.
Nothing in the set-up and execution of Kicks seems far-fetched in the least. You may recall incidents in the not-too-distant past as reasonably priced canvas sneakers gave way to expensive, highly-prized, celebrity-endorsed athletic shoes, starting with 1985 marketplace debut of Air Jordans, basketball star Michael Jordan’s signature brand. This fancy footwear was so valuable that it became the target of theft and even violence. If someone was able to save enough to purchase a pair of Air Jordans or a comparable model from another company, the next challenge was holding onto the shoes. According to Kicks, the more things change, the more they stay the same.
The movie uses snatches of bangin’ hip-hop recordings, old school and new, complete with brief, salient quotes from various tracks in on-screen text, as a reflection and commentary on Brandon’s mission to recover the shoes. This visual quirk could have been a little distracting. Instead, it breaks the story into distinct chapters that give Kicks a nice rhythm and gives the viewer a breather without sacrificing forward momentum.
Although this is Tipping’s first feature-length film as a director, he brings an assuredness to the affair. It feels authentic, from its view of the often-desolate urban landscape and the run-down dwellings of its inhabitants to its depiction of singular cultural elements at play, including a pivotal sideshow — a communal gathering of gang members and their acolytes with tricked-out cars in a street ritual of fancy driving.
Tipping makes sure that Kicks is not a simple case of hero and villain or victim and predator, aided by textured performances from his cast. Guillory’s likable, reckless Brandon is countered by the adversarial Flaco (Kofi Siriboe) whose cruelty and aggressiveness evaporate when he reaches his shabby home and lovingly bestows the stolen shoes on his prepubescent son. And, if he paid attention, Brandon could benefit from the hard-won wisdom imparted to him by his drug-dealing, gun-toting Uncle Marlon (commanding veteran actor Mahershala Ali). Christopher Meyer and Christopher Jordan Wallace also deserve mention for their easy and natural interplay as Brandon’s teasing pals who accompany him as he tries to find Flaco and somehow recover his kicks while avoiding the literal kicks that could be coming his way.
A resident of Russian Hill, the undeniably talented Laura Albert has been at the center of a literary storm since the revelation that the author of a series of acclaimed fictional books and short stories was not the person he (or she) claimed to be. That brouhaha is at the heart of the fascinating, enlightening documentary, Author: The JT Leroy Story, directed by Jeff Feuerzeig.
Over the past two decades, Albert has reflected on her real experiences as a teenage runaway living in group homes and on the streets, with all the sordidness that entails, to craft resonant, moving, sometimes tragicomic tales of teenage prostitution, drug use, and a dissolute life on the road. The work, though presented as fiction, was largely written in the first person, and the voice was that of a transgender-identified, male former teen hooker. Albert published her writing under the name JT Leroy, and it was embraced by critics and readers who assumed that JT was a real person. One of the JT Leroy books, The Heart Is Deceitful Above All Things, was subsequently adapted as a movie. But rather than reveal her true identity as the author at public appearances, Albert had her androgynous-looking sister-in-law don a wig and sunglasses to portray the reclusive Leroy when the situation called for it.
Eventually, the true identity of the author was revealed, and Albert was vilified and accused of deception, even if the Leroy character could be considered an avatar or a long-form performance art piece by Albert. A case could be made that JT Leroy is part of the grand tradition of pen names in literature that includes Samuel “Mark Twain” Clemens and, more to the point, the 19th-century female author Mary Ann Evans, best-known by her male nom de plume George Eliot. Still, there were plenty in the media who shouted, “Hoax!”
Under Feuerzeig’s guidance, Author: The JT Leroy Story gives Albert a chance to tell her story through interview footage, her journal entries, archival photos, audio, film, and video, and testimonials from her friends, allies, and celebrity fans, which include a parade of names from the worlds of pop music, movies, television, and — yes — literature. And quite a story it is. Catch it, and draw your own conclusions.