The Kitchen is a basic, slow moving, but effective dystopian drama that marks the feature directorial debut of Oscar winning actor Daniel Kaluuya. Co-directing with Kibwe Tavares and co-authoring the screenplay with Joe Murtagh, Kaluuya shows a lot of promise for the future as a craftsperson, even if The Kitchen is a well meaning, but slight effort on the whole. It’s a work of notable passion and well studied sense of style, even if the overall character arcs, ideas, and stories found within The Kitchen have been explored better and more ambitiously many times before. There’s nothing at all “wrong” with The Kitchen, except for the unshakable feeling that it’s all been done before.
Set in a not-too-distant future, The Kitchen unfolds primarily in the titular London neighbourhood, the last bastion of community housing in a city run amok with gentrification. Police constantly raid and turn off the water in the local tenements, with hopes of driving out the area’s last remaining residents, all of whom are doing anything and everything in their power to hang onto their livelihoods. One resident who’s keen on getting out, however, is Isaac (Kane Robinson, a.k.a. Kano), a loner with a steady job at a mortuary that turns dead people into glorified fertilizer, albeit with a “feel good” eco twist. Izi, as he’s known to friends, has save up enough scratch for a posh new condo and is on the verge of leaving The Kitchen for good, when he crosses paths with Benji (Jedaiah Bannerman), a twelve-year old orphan who just lost his mother. With nowhere to go, Benji moves into The Kitchen in a bid to find his father, who supposedly lives there. Izi takes Benji under his wing and tries to keep him from falling in with a tough crowd, but the older man still stays focused on his plans to abandon The Kitchen.
It’s clear that Kaluuya and Tavares have studied the visuals of the masters. There’s a lot of visual and storytelling nods to Spike Lee (including an obvious Do The Right Thing reference via the inclusion of a local radio DJ that serves as a sort of Greek chorus, played expertly by Ian Wright), Steve McQueen, and Costa-Gavras. The Kitchen is a colourful blend of light sci-fi (plenty of neon and holograms abound) and dystopian, inner city grime. The production design is top notch, and Kaluuya and Tavares have imbued the neighbourhood itself with plenty of melting pot cultural influences. It’s easy to see why so many people would love their neighbourhood and the sense of togetherness it can foster, but also why someone like Izi would want to leave.
That’s all well and good, and it certainly speaks volumes for the future endeavours of Kaluuya and Tavares behind the camera, but The Kitchen is lacking in overall inspiration in many other respects. While The Kitchen is trying to be a post-modern bit of fantasy, the story itself doesn’t necessarily benefit from being set in the future. A great argument could be made that turning this story into sci-fi speaks down to the fact that many cities have already reached this rampant level of gentrification, and the horrors depicted in The Kitchen aren’t far enough removed from our current reality. People of colour and the economically marginalized already understand what makes Kaluuya and Murtagh’s story so frightening, but there’s also a wish for this material to go deeper and further. The image of a militarized police force pushing people out of their homes for daring to stick around and fight back against deplorable conditions is shocking, but also depressingly commonplace. It’s not as foreboding when the threat is already here.
The languid pacing of The Kitchen doesn’t help matters much. Anyone expecting lots of action or intensity from their sci-fi might want to look elsewhere, but there are moments where Kaluuya and Tavares’ relaxed and unhurried tone works well for a story about two people from different generations trying to get their lives in order. Kano and Bannerman deliver performances that push the script into dramatically satisfying territory, adding some much needed personality to roles that are written as a stock loner and his surrogate (?) wayward son, respectively. The leads are playing archetypes that have been seen in inner city dramas before, but that doesn’t mean they aren’t giving their all to the cause.
The Kitchen has clarity and the strength of its convictions, but it lacks that extra degree of ingenuity that could turn it into something special. If it had gone bigger and become more ambitious with its futuristic elements, or if it had stripped things back and simply presented a no frills character drama, The Kitchen might’ve landed a lot more powerfully. Instead, it’s a solid directorial debut that’s fine enough for what it is.
The Kitchen streams on Netflix starting Friday, January 19, 2024.
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