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The Kitchen review: Daniel Kaluuya’s directorial debut is a stunner

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There are no aliens or sentient killing machines menacing the ordinary people going about their lives in Netflix’s new dystopian action drama The Kitchen from co-directors Daniel Kaluuya and Kibwe Tavares. But the film’s arresting story about the monsters of the future and how the most disadvantaged members of society have to stand up to them feels all too real and like a reminder of the ways systemic poverty creates its own dystopia.

Set in a near-futuristic London where fluorescent hologram ads dance across signs and camera-encrusted police drones loom silently high up in the air, The Kitchen is a chronicle of the goings-on in its titular neighborhood. After years of public housing across the United Kingdom being bought up by private companies and transformed into expensive luxury flats for the wealthy, the Kitchen — a towering, dilapidated apartment complex long-scheduled for demolition — is the only place in London where people like Isaac (rapper Kane “Kano” Robinson) can really afford to live.

The Kitchen is beyond poor, and its residents never know whether their power and water will be shut off by the city. But it’s still a bustling hub of commerce where vendors sling food on streets dense with playing children and old men relax on the doorsteps of barbershops. There’s always an atmosphere of tension as Kitcheners brace themselves for yet another one of the city’s violent police raids meant to expel them from their homes.

But the Kitchen’s air is also constantly filled with the sound of music broadcasting from the Lord Kitchener’s (Ian Wright) pirate radio station along with his calls for the neighborhood’s predominantly Black and brown community to hold fast to the idea that they have a right to exist in a place where their families have survived for decades.

As a Kitchener himself, Isaac — who works with his friend Jase (Demmy Ladipo) for a company that composts the dead whose families can’t afford traditional funerals — knows that the neighborhood is so much more than a block full of people illegally squatting in condemned buildings. But after a lifetime of watching the Kitchen be razed and its residents brutalized by cops in riot gear, all Isaac wants is a shot at getting out and moving into the kind of high-rise where he can shut himself away from the world and his feelings.

The Kitchen makes it easy to recognize the parallels between its vision of futuristic housing inequality and our present-day reality in which renters and would-be homebuyers across the globe are increasingly being priced out of the limited, highly competitive real estate market. But the film’s script from Kaluuya and co-writers Rob Hayes and Joe Murtagh and its focus on young Londoners navigating the complexities of near homelessness makes The Kitchen read like a scathing reflection of the long-term devastating impacts of the UK’s Margaret Thatcher-era right-to-buy policies.

The Kitchen presents its namesake as a cramped Kowloon-like mosaic of barely livable spaces packed with outdated technology that contrasts sharply with the spacious neighborhoods nearby, where gleaming driverless cars idle by luxury boutiques. At all times, Kitcheners like Isaac and Staples (Hope Ikpoku Jr.) — the leader of a biker gang whose robberies provide the Kitchen with its only source of food — are surrounded by reminders of basic comforts they’re denied.

But out of the many ways The Kitchen illustrates how society systemically dehumanizes the poor, few are as profound as its depiction of Isaac going to work every day and convincing his neighbors to buy into a service they all understand as being meant to erase them from the public consciousness. That erasure is part of what scares young orphan Benji (Jedaiah Bannerman) so much about seeing his mother’s remains turned into tree fertilizer at Life After Life, where he first meets Isaac. What really scares Isaac, though, is his unshakable sense that simply by being from the Kitchen, Benji’s mother’s fate was inevitable and a glimpse of what’s in store for Benji if he doesn’t escape the Kitchen himself.

As Isaac and Benji come into each other’s lives, The Kitchen becomes a kind of coming-of-age story as well as a rumination on the power of communal action and found families. Isaac — a stoic character Robinson portrays with a brilliant emotionally-congested quality — wants little to do with Benji when the pair first meet. There’s no room for a kid in Isaac’s plan for the future or really even in his present-day corner of the Kitchen where he has to lock himself in whenever the police show up ready to evict people by beating them to death.

But for all of Benji’s resourcefulness, he’s just a boy Isaac knows will end up running with Staples’ crew or murdered because they live in a world filled with systems designed to leave people like them with no other options. From somewhat different angles, the concepts central to The Kitchen have been explored in other genre films like Attack the Block and They Cloned Tyrone, which both leaned much harder into their respective hard sci-fi elements.

What makes The Kitchen feel so distinct, though, is the way its subtle touches of speculative futurism work to highlight realities about how at-risk communities are surveilled and how riots end up becoming people’s organic response to state-sponsored violence. Through both the Lord Kitchener’s broadcasts and Isaac’s looming sense of dread, The Kitchen never lets you lose sight of the fact that the Kitcheners are fighting for their lives in a war they’re not likely to win.

But at the core of that fight, there’s an undeniable sense of hope and beauty to the lives of everyone in the Kitchen. The Kitchen’s ability to showcase that beauty in intimate scenes between Isaac and Benji and in larger moments like the movie’s surprising third-act dance sequence, all while telling a story that’s so heartbreaking, is a feat. And it’s precisely what makes the film one of Netflix’s most powerful new releases that you’re all but certain to start hearing more about now that it’s streaming.

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