"Kicks" is a new coming-of-age drama set in Oakland and Richmond — neighborhoods in the East Bay, where outside of “Fruitvale Station,” not many movies are set. The story revolves around a poor, young kid ridiculed for his tattered sneakers who dreams of new shoes and hangs around with his buddies trying not to get beat up by aggressive thugs. There are lyrical sequences in slow motion and fantasy scenes with an astronaut.
Justin Tipping, the director and co-writer of "Kicks," grew up in the East Bay. It was a key moment in his childhood that formed the movie's inciting incident. His co-writer and producer Joshua Beirne-Golden grew up in New Jersey — far from Tipping's reality — but the two bonded over feeling as if society's views of manhood didn't apply to them.
Joshua Beirne-Golden: In some way, we made the movie for child Justin and child Josh. We talked a lot in the early phases of making the movie about how we wanted to make something that was a little bit like the movies that we grew up on like "Stand By Me" or like "The Goonies," but that took place where Justin grew up, and to show those kids and their lives in a way that was beautiful and eventful and adventurous and also dealing with the realities of where they are.
The two filmmakers met in film school at the American Film Institute, where they forged a productive partnership. Their short film “Nani” even won a Student Academy Award.
See highlights of the interview below or hear the entire conversation by clicking the play button at the top of the page.
How the filmmakers bonded over definitions of manhood:
Joshua Beirne-Golden: We met literally on the first day of film school. You come in with two ideas that you have to pitch for your first short. Justin came in with two ideas. One was "Nani," which won the student Oscar, and the other was "Kicks"... we talked a lot that day, about the idea for "Kicks" and how it was about an emotional journey that we had not seen before. I think, particularly, at the beginning of film school when you're coming from a whole different life set of experiences, you have these overly intimate conversations where you're getting to know everybody and finding out all of their deep dark secrets and what drives them and what they're so excited about. So it just sort of became a conversation. Justin talked about having gotten jumped for his shoes when he was a teenager, and then we talked about that shared experience that we had both had of feeling like it was really hard to define ourselves as men in the world. I think it was this ongoing conversation that we ended up finding at that intersection.
On growing up in opposite worlds feeling like "outsiders":
Beirne-Golden: I grew up gay and I think knowing when I was a teenager that I was gay and feeling like this idea of masculinity that I felt like I had to live up to in a big way, was something that felt like just one of the most formative experiences of my entire life. It was like this burden that I couldn't get out from under, and then as I got older, I realized that it was probably a lot of it self-imposed and a lot of it also imposed by society. So it was something that I had not worked through entirely.
Justin Tipping: You weren't allowed to express your emotions — the full gamut of your emotions. It felt like you could only be angry. That was the one thing that was okay. As soon as you started to be like, "I feel vulnerable," then you'd be called a p---- or a b---- and you weren't manning up. Even in the language, I look back at my young self and the kids I was hanging out with. If you didn't like something or if something was stupid, you'd be like, that's hella gay, because you're so afraid that's not falling into the box of what it means to be a man — that you're so insecure you have to say it out loud to the world just so everyone doesn't get the wrong idea. Especially, the idea of men crying in front of their families or children. You have to be this patriarchal figure that's so stoic and emotionless.
Beirne-Golden: I think it's particularly tough when you are inherently a really emotional person. I think we all are. But I think the common ground we found was that we both were really emotional kids. We grew up feeling a little bit like outsiders in very different ways. When you already feel like that way and then this burden comes in, I think sometime around adolescence, and this idea that you have to live up to being a certain kind of way, it can feel pretty heavy. So that's probably that common ground we found.
On screening "Kicks" in the East Bay:
Tipping: I've been thinking about that since day one of inception. I think that's probably going to be the most rewarding — I'm getting emotional just thinking about it because now that it's coming out, it's been [a] whirlwind in seeing people's reactions. I honestly am just like, I just want to go to Richmond and sit in a theater with a bunch of kids and see what happens. That's the most exciting thing to me, because that's really who we are trying to reach and to hopefully change minds or change point of views or help a kid in a similar situation feel a little less lonely. It's weird because you sit there and think about all the universal themes, but at the end of the day, that's the most important audience for us.
Beirne-Golden: Yeah that would be the most special thing, will be to see people who we made the movie for — and in a lot of cases made the movie with. I mean, so many of the cast members are people from these communities, and they were such a huge part of the fabric of the film, so to see that reaction I think will be beyond special.
“Kicks” is in limited theatrical release now and goes wider Sept. 16.