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REVIEW: Ayala’s “Pumped Up Kicks” Kicks… You Know What

Hi, Everyone!

Our Kind of Awesome is in the early stages of pre-production for our latest video. I can’t wait to share it with y’all. In the meantime, I want to take a moment a give a shout-out to a project our friend and collaborator, Dakota Denton, was involved with.

The name of project is “Pumped Up Kicks,” a Peter Ayala short film inspired by a Foster the People song of the same name. You may have never heard the song before- or, like me, you heard the song, thought “nice beat,” but actually listened to the actual lyrics (a common misstep for me).  If you are part of either group, here is the rundown of the song: a kid get a hold of his daddy’s gun and starts shooting. So, obviously Ayala’s film is a family-friendly comedy. I think the director handled the material well, honoring its heaviness but also bring an aspect of hope to the mix.

Now, to the film itself:

“Kicks” opens with the camera following Bobby (James Harris) as he runs for dear life from bullies, played by Eric Poehlman, Andy Vasquez, and the exceptional, Dakota Denton). Eventually, Bobby manages to escape his pursuers and enter into the sanctity of his home, where he retreats into his room and turns on the TV to detox. With his mind undoubtedly preoccupied with the day’s events, he has trouble focusing on any one show until he catches a glimpse of “The Good, the Bad and the Ugly.” As Clint Eastwood deals with his opponents with trademark firearm diplomacy, the boy gets to thinking, “hey, my dad has a gun…” So, the next thing we know, Bobby raids his dad’s closet, finds his dad’s a gun, and leaves the house intent on making peace…. or not.

The following scene is undoubtedly the most powerful:

Bobby encounters the bullies, they don’t make nice, and so the victim-turned-gunman pulls out his gun; then everything goes into slow-mo. Slow motion is a wonderful device if you use it right (thank you, Wachowski brothers), and I think Ayala definitely did. Ayala’s song choice for this sequence, “O come, O come, Emmanuel,” is perfect. “Emmanual” is a plea to God for Him to rescue Israel from their suffering. Within the context of the film, it speaks for Bobby, verbalizing his pain and underscores the sad reality of what can happen when the disenfranchised feel salvation will never come. The lead bully (Denton) is slain first and the rest follow. I wish the director had added flash effects to the gun shots to make them more realistic, but still the scene survives without them. With the bullies downed, Bobby makes one final move, handing the gun to a surviving goon, allowing him to take Bobby’s life too.

At first I wondered why Ayala decided for Bobby to do this, because this action seemed to give power back to someone Bobby had striven to gain power back from, but now I see the wisdom in this move: Bobby, in his last moments, realizes that gunning down his foes in cold blood makes him no better than they are- arguably worse, even. Both parties are now guilty, demanding that both of them be removed to wash the slate clean. This rather profound show of self-examination transitions wonderfully into the next scene, where… (*spoiler alert*)

Bobby wakes up!

Now, normally I am not keen on the whole “it was just a dream” plot device. The Greeks started it (see deus ex machina), “Alice in Wonderland” and “Wizard of Oz” popularized it; “Donnie Darko” and “A Nightmare on Elm Street” messed with it; and storytellers-in-a-pinch adore it. Like playing Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah” at an open mic night, the device can work brilliantly when used well, but it can also leave you sorely wanting.

In this instance, Ayala has made me a believer. The end of the dream really helps me with this. If you have ever had a dream you realized was a dream before it was over, you can probably relate. In midst of Bobby’s nightmare, his moral compass, sense of reason, or the hand of God flares up, undoubtedly guiding the dream to end as it did (sadly, with no further “Inception“-style turns). Armed with this flash of new-found insight, Bobby decides to confront his foes through non-violent means.

Why the bullies are willing to let Bobby into their space without ripping him a new one is anyone’s guess, but they do- people will surprise you sometimes- and the lot of them begin to talk it out. We do not know whether or not these negotiations end well, the movie ends at the initiation of their conversation, but we do know that Bobby has completed his character arc, from being chased to taking charge.

Perhaps this ending paints a rather overly optimistic picture of a pretty dire situation, but I feel it is not disingenuous to the plot. I wish more potential shootouts would end this way, rather than on the 7 o’clock news. And, as “Stranger Than Fiction” argued: a sad ending may be more artistic; but, when a happy one will more than do (especially when real lives hang in the balance).

Final Notes

As a whole, the director presents a nice product. He plays around with a lot of nice camera angles, which would only be helped with the addition of a choice lens filters or two. I think the volume of the soundtrack competes with the live action at times, so tuning it down a little may be wise, unless the music is meant to be a character itself, which is entirely possible when the movie is based on a song. I look forward to future projects Peter Ayala creates; and, to you, Mr. Denton, cheers!

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