In our regular column, Less Than (Five) Zero, we take a look at films that have received less than 50 logged watches on Letterboxd, aiming to discover hidden gems in independent and world cinema. This week Felix Hubble looks at a film from Deidre Schoo and Welcome to Leith co-director Michael Beach Nichols, Flex Is Kings.
Date Watched: 10th July, 2015
Letterboxd Views (at the time of viewing): 27
The feature length debut of Deidre Schoo and co-director Michael Beach Nichols,1 Flex Is Kings explores the flexing community, a group that rallies around one of the many unique styles of street dance to come out of New York. Focusing on a few specific performers as they approach personal challenges and goals – be it a performance in Battlefest (the countries largest flex-based dance-off), or their first role in an international dance-focused stage-play – the documentary paints a history of the style and tracks its relevant developments, presenting a well-rounded image of the state of the movement today. Through the portrayal of the dance as a non-violent outlet for a group of somewhat impoverished Americans to express themselves in a fashion that is unique to their Brooklyn location and community, the film explores the freeing power of art and self expression. In doing so, Schoo and Nichols proficiently spin an interesting story out of minor, disparate elements, uniting a few divergent storylines through their protagonists’ friendship and love of flexing.
Flexing, the style of dance explored by directors Schoo and Nichols in the documentary, emerged from the streets of Brooklyn in the mid-late 2000s. Characterized by silky smooth arm and leg movements and rhythmic contortions that act to either hide the performer’s bones or make you acutely aware of them, the dance lends itself perfectly to the filmic medium, a graceful spectacle which is captivating when replicated on the screen using down-cranked footage and non-human camera angles that emphasize the fluidity of performer’s movements.
Schoo and Nichols aren’t content with merely exploring the dance-style however, rooting their film in three human narratives. We follow Flizzo as he spreads the art of flex to the youth of Brooklyn and attempts to maintain his undefeated status at Battlefest, we see Jay Donn’s first attempts to monetize his talents performing as the titular character in a street-dance-based adaptation of Pinocchio which is set to open at the infamous Edinburgh Fringe Festival, and, to a lesser extent, we see Reem’s struggle to legitimize Battlefest in the face of institutional racism and financial issues. It would have been good to see Reem’s journey in greater detail as it incorporates some pretty interesting thematic elements, but Flizzo and Jay Donn are strong protagonists so its absence isn’t too sorely missed. Overall, Schoo and Nichols approach to their storylines is a proficient way to glue everything all together, although the film sometimes lacks the consistent flow and fluidity of the amazing dance moves on display.
I have to say I’m pretty surprised that Flex Is Kings is this underseen; the poster is intriguing, and the stills that led me to seek out the film are all amazing, expressing some of the more breathtaking moves executed by a few of the strongest flex performers. It is, in fact, in these moments that the film shines; I’m a sucker for footage of complex dance moves that push the limits of what the human body can do, subverting expectations of human movement and this film has them in spades, often underscored by an absolutely killer soundtrack that would have sounded absolutely amazing in a cinema setting. Unfortunately, however, Flex Is Kings seems to have faded into obscurity after its Tribeca premiere.
The film, although not absolutely brilliant, is a solid effort from Nichols and Schoo, demonstrating the ability to weave an interesting tale out of a few, small-scale niche stories, making them digestable and captivating for a wider audience. It’s a talent that Nichols flaunted once more with his later contribution to this year’s fantastic understated documentary Welcome to Leith,2 and one that I hope to see on display from both directors again in the near future.
Flex Is Kings is currently available for rental and purchase from Vimeo-on-demand.