Yelling to the Sky - SideReel Review

Yelling to the Sky - SideReel Review

Some movies are more about mood and atmosphere than character and narrative, and Yelling to the Sky is just that sort of picture. The problem, however, isn’t that the film emphasizes tone over a firm story line, but that it rarely even seems to have a story for much of its running time; filmmaker Victoria Mahoney barely explains who her characters are and what they’re supposed to be doing for most of the first third, and by the time we finally understand their actions and they begin to interact within what could be called a plot line, the movie has already wandered into a maze that it can barely escape.

Yelling to the Sky stars Zoe Kravitz as Sweetness O’Hara, a teenager living in a tough neighborhood in Queens, New York. She’s a senior in high school, but acts as if she barely knows her surroundings -- or is too intimidated by them to be comfortable. Sweetness has grown up in a highly dysfunctional family, with an alcoholic, abusive father (Jason Clarke) who occasionally abandons the family and a mother (Yolonda Ross) who seems nearly catatonic and sometimes simply wanders off. This leaves Sweetness and her older sister Ola (Antonique Smith) to fend for themselves, which is made even more difficult since Ola has a baby of her own to look after. The siblings also have to deal with a local gang of violent, streetwise young women led by Latonya (Gabourey Sidibe), who seems especially fond of heaping abuse on Sweetness. As life becomes harder for Sweetness on all fronts, she begins to change -- she sheds her naivete and starts dealing drugs and engaging in petty crime in order to bring some money into the household. She also gains a posse, led by two of Latonya’s former underlings, Jojo (Sonequa Martin) and Fatima (Shareeka Epps), and learns to dish out the sort of punishment she once had to take. But Sweetness’ new life is full of danger, and she soon realizes she needs to get away and make something of herself before it’s too late.

Yelling to the Sky touches on a number of topics that are common in films about urban America and the economic underclass -- broken families, failing schools, misguided young people, gang violence, and crime as the sole entrepreneurial outlet in the ghetto. Writer and director Mahoney is clearly trying to examine these issues in a new and different way, and while her concern is obvious, that’s not to say she does this well; she might be aiming for an impressionistic visual approach and elliptical rhythms in her editing, but the result is a picture that favors style over substance. Most of the movie feels slow and aimless, with too many images and incidents clearly inserted into the film for their own sake rather than to enlighten the audience about the characters or their lives.

Yelling to the Sky also puts a lot of weight on the cast, and they don’t seem able to carry it. Zoe Kravitz’s evolution from shy introvert to conscienceless thug seems curiously abrupt and hard to swallow, and Jason Clarke’s inverse path from mean-spirited drunk to concerned and caring parent is just puzzling, as if his transformation occurred without any warning. And Gabourey Sidibe’s talents are wasted as Latonya, who is intimidating and inarticulate and nothing else. Cinematographer Reed Dawson Morano and production designer Kelly McGehee help give this film a striking look on a modest budget, but sometimes they do their work a bit too well, as many of the early sequences are so dark and shadowy it’s hard to tell what is going on. And though plenty of movies have touched on the failings of America’s public-school system, the high school here seems almost comical in its degeneracy, especially when the principal ends up doing drugs with one of his own students. Yelling to the Sky is ambitious and full of ideas, but Victoria Mahoney hasn’t figured out what to do with her overflowing imagination just yet; the result is a debut that shows genuine promise but never comes especially close to succeeding at what it hopes to accomplish.

-Mark Deming


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