Writer/director Victoria Mahoney’s semi-autobiographical debut film is a story beautifully shot, elegantly portrayed, harsh and full of gaps. It tells the gripping and familiar tale of survival and coming of age on the mean streets of Any Ghetto, USA. The film quickly reaches for the throat but lessens its grip as it goes on.
Sweetness O’Hara, a young girl coming of age in a cold, cruel world, is convincingly played by Zoe Kravitz in her first starring role. In the film, she gets her latest dose of harsh street reality when she’s jumped and beaten by a group of girls led by street tough Latonya, played by Gabourey Sidibe, in this, her second film since “Precious.”
For Sweetness, life at home is not much better. She lives with her mentally unstable African-American mother, Lorene, portrayed by Yolanda Ross, and her pregnant older sister Ola, portrayed by Antonique Smith, who is so perfectly cast that she and Kravitz actually look like sisters. Their white father, Gordon, played by Jason Clarke, has been gone for most of her life but is now back on the scene just in time to dish out physical and verbal abuse to his wife and children during his many drunken tirades.
They all make attempts at escape. Lorene just leaves, only to be literally carried back home. Ola leaves but returns with a new baby daughter in tow. Sweetness, who loves word games and music, “escapes” in a downward spiral of drugs, drink and petty theft. The young girl embraces the street life that threatens to consume her. She and her friends form a clique so tight they all wear the same hairstyle and clothes.
The transformation is fast and furious-Sweetness becomes the bad girl, the tough girl, the kick-ass girl with the funky kicks and signature gold hoops who refuses to be pushed around anymore.
But a brush with the business end of a gun, the death of her benevolent drug dealer and a bad night of drugs and drink that lands her in the backseat of her sister’s smashed-up car all begin to push the not-so-sweet Sweetness back on track.
This familiar tale spins a bit too quickly and disjointedly. We probably know a few of these character types ourselves-perhaps that familiarity desensitizes us to the profound sadness this film tries to present. The familiarity of the story, however, does not prevent the film’s many unanswered questions.
There is no explanation of Lorene’s mental illness, no hint of where Gordon has been all these years and no acknowledgement of Ola’s baby’s father or why she returned after the child was born. Sidibe’s character is shown as a cruel bully, with no insight into what made her that way. This lack of depth makes it difficult to really connect with or care about the characters. They become pawns playing out stereotypical roles.
The film does have some beautifully filmed touches-the leftover crusts of PB&J sandwiches, the tube-style televisions stacked one on top of the other and the ever-present ironing board-all of which add to the tale’s authenticity.
In the end, young Sweetness, or “Sweetie” as her father calls her, is a rare hero. She’s a multiracial protagonist, trying to grow up and getting caught in a situation that has almost become a cliche. She is both victim and victor in a life as hard as concrete. In “Yelling,” Sweetness fights to be the rose that blooms from that concrete. But with the viewer getting fed tiny spoonfuls of insight into the movie’s characters without being able to firmly connect with any of them, the film fails to elicit solid emotion once the lights come back on.
The Harlem-based ImageNation Cinema Foundation and the Film Society of Lincoln Center presented “Yelling to the Sky” on Aug. 25 at Lincoln Center’s Walter Reade Theater.