OAKLAND -- Jonathan Singer-Vine is a first-time director who dropped out of film school and could boast only a few amateur music videos when he started writing the script for an Oakland-based story that would be his first feature-length film, "Licks." That was 2010.

Fast forward to October, when "Licks" won top prize for best picture and its stars picked up awards for best actor and best supporting actor at the Chelsea Film Festival in New York.

The big win came after screenings at South by Southwest and the Milan Film Festival.

"I am still recovering from making the film," said Singer-Vine, 25, of Berkeley. "But nothing can beat getting your film shown in Italy."

Scenes of Oakland on the big screen are rare, while crime-driven images of the city's urban life are not. "Licks," which refers to an easy heist, has both, which risks reinforcing the kind of sensationalistic media stereotypes of Oakland and of black and brown men.

The story revolves around "D" (Stanley Hunt), who has returned to Oakland after serving two years in prison for a botched liquor store robbery. Hunt and Koran Streets, who plays "Rell," are brothers whose mother runs the Lower Bottom Playaz theater troupe in West Oakland.

"D" lands back in Oakland with little in his pocket and no compass for steering his life in a direction other than toward the violence and crime consuming his friends.


Advertisement

The real story begins with each character's motivation, said Adrian Burrell, the film's 23-year-old associate producer who helped on early versions of the script.

Why are they willing to risk prison and possibly death for a few hundred dollars? Can they do something else and still meet the mundane demands of adulthood -- rent, food, gas, doctor bills?

"You are seeing the softer side of them," Burrell said when asked about the risk of simplistic portrayals of Oakland and the characters in the film.

"Yes, you are lost. Yes, you did get dealt a bad hand," he said. "But the choice is yours. Now what?"

As it happens, Burrell was shot at in the 1971 green Caprice used in the movie shortly after filming ended.

"Art is supposed to be a mirror of society," said Devon Libran, 25, who plays the character "Ty." "It's easy to put people in a box and make assumptions."

"Ty" makes it to a minor baseball league, his ticket to a better hand. He hopes to get drafted to the major leagues, but the culture shock that hits him in Nevada overwhelms the 18-year-old fresh out of high school. He heads straight back to Oakland because it's home, even though he will find no solutions there.

"'Licks' is an American story," Libran said. "It could happen anywhere."

"Licks" clearly follows in the path of other raw urban youth dramas. Singer-Vine's influences include Harmony Korine, who wrote the screenplay for "Kids," and twins Albert Hughes and Allen Hughes, best known for their film "Menace II Society." To be fair, Darren Aronofsky ("Black Swan") and François Truffautm ("The 400 Blows") were also on his list.

"Licks" often gets mentioned in the same breath as "Fruitvale Station," the drama about the 2009 shooting of Oscar Grant III in Oakland.

"It could be a prequel to 'Fruitvale Station,'" Singer-Vine said.

He said he wanted to tell the story about what it was like growing up in the Bay Area. Oakland was a natural backdrop, and many scenes were shot in the living rooms of friends and family.

The characters are composites of friends he made as a skateboarder. Skate parks and growing up in the Bay Area put him in the path of kids who he related to and came to care for, even though as the son of professional parents he had alternatives they lacked.

"Licks" was made in a month by a crew and cast from Oakland and nearby East Bay cities.

The film was edited on a laptop by Vinnie Hobbs, who had never edited a feature-length movie. Music video cinematographer Rob Witt gave the film a brooding dreamscape look. The ad hoc financing came from friends, family and crew members.

Singer-Vine and co-writer and co-producer Justin Robinson, a local rapper, spent two years walking the streets, collecting stories and writing the script. They were still revising the script right up to the beginning of shooting, Singer-Vine said.

"It was like a working canvas," he said.