There’s an undercurrent of raw energy that threads through The Kitchen, the directorial debut from Daniel Kaluuya and Kibwe Tavares. The film, set in a dystopian London where the class divide has created problematic rifts, surges with intention and thought-provoking urgency. The concept behind the film, which came to Kaluuya in 2014, is strong: a mass of lower income Londoners live illegally in a run-down, high-rise estate called the Kitchen, attempting to make ends meet as the authorities threaten to evict them to pave the way for more expensive housing.
THE KITCHEN ★★1/2 (2.5/4 stars)
While Kaluuya and his co-writer Joe Murtagh never indicate a year, the future onscreen feels prescient. The skyline has shifted and the technology is new, but the residents of the Kitchen live in a knife’s edge version of London that could exist a few decades down the road. The world-building, particularly the production design by Nathan Parker, is strong and immersive, retaining a sense of grit that owes a debt to classics like Blade Runner or Total Recall. The problem is the plot, which starts off compelling but falters, as if the concept was more important the story.
Izi (Top Boy star Kane Robinson) lives an isolated life in the Kitchen, where he’s counting down the days until he can move into a modern, luxury apartment building named Buena Vida. He works for a funeral company, Life After Life, which cremates the deceased and transforms them into plants. One day, Izi recognizes the name on one of the funerals and hovers in the doorway as the dead woman’s teenage son Benji (breakout newcomer Jedaiah Bannerman) mourns. The pair become uneasy friends—Benji suspects Izi is his father, following him back to the Kitchen—but Izi’s heart is as barricaded as his door.
The best moments are the banter between Izi and Benji, who both seem to want a connection they don’t know how to attain. Bannerman, in particular, is charmingly wry, apt with the delivery of a memorable one-liner. The film veers from scene to scene, with little to propel the narrative. Izi brings Benji to an underground party at the Kitchen, where the residents find joy in the thumping music and a makeshift roller rink. Armed police frequently raid the Kitchen, dragging people out of their homes while police drones hover around the windows. Izi is torn between staying with Benji or accepting his new, single-occupancy home and Benji falls in with a crowd of youths who pop wheelies and hijack food delivery trucks, but there’s otherwise not much movement in the plot. The Kitchen is more of a collection of vignettes that serve the overall creative idea of the filmmakers.
Kaluuya, who grew up on a council estate in Camden, clearly has a personal stake in The Kitchen. The actor has previously written short films, but this marks a solid debut feature for him that is stronger for its adept comment on the British class system. The film sides with marginalized, ordinary people who not only want to survive, but who want to find a sense of purpose and connection. The story is punctuated by the Kitchen’s own DJ, Lord Kitchener (former soccer player Ian Wright), who speaks to the residents as a voice of comfort and wisdom, even as they’re beaten by police and their makeshift businesses destroyed in the raids. Although today’s London is not so extreme, the cost of living crisis has pushed many more people into poverty over the last year—a fact that’s impossible to ignore when watching a movie like The Kitchen. Kaluuya and Tavares aren’t interested in sentimentality, though. Instead, the film serves as haunting “what if” scenario, offering viewers a glimpse of a possible future.
Observer Reviews are regular assessments of new and noteworthy cinema.