In the first moments of Victoria Mahoney’s directorial debut, Yelling to the Sky, 17 year-old Sweetness O’Hara (Zoe Kravitz) is hanging with a friend when a menacing group, led by Sweetness’ nemesis Latonya (Gabourey Sidibe) approaches. The girls attempt to flee but Sweetness is caught, tripped and beaten. The switch from carefree levity to overt physical violence feels predictable, even hackneyed, until an older girl drags Sweetness’ assailant away and begins to systematically pound his face and body. The girl is Sweetness’ sister Ola (Antonique Smith). When she eventually heaves herself up from where she has squatted over the boy, the camera swings to her bunched fists and her heavily pregnant belly looms into view. The sweetness of thoroughly delivered retribution sours. The moment is jarring and typical of Mahoney’s directorial approach–in which tenderness wrestles constantly with violence.
The film doesn’t give its viewers an easy ride, but the reward is that no character is stock, and the scenes are (mostly) unpredictable. When Sweetness attempts to kiss her friend Roland- the tender-hearted man who supplies the community with drugs, food and money for funerals, subtly played by Tariq “Black Thought” Trotter – he steps back, saying “don’t make me ‘that guy’.” His words are the film’s lodestar. Yelling has issues – addiction, abuse, racism, teen-pregnancy, depression, poverty – but they are part of, not the sum of the characters’ lives.
Sweetness’ abusive Irish-American father Gordon O’Hara (Jason Clarke) is not an outright villain but a flawed person striving and failing and to deal. His daughter’s benders are interspersed with domestic moments: in one scene she places her head in the lap of her catatonically depressed mother (impeccably played by Yolonda Ross) telling her ‘You can come out now’; in another she holds up a pair of mirrors to help her dad stitch up his busted head. The ending isn’t flowers and rainbows. Although there’s some uplift, there are no guarantees.
The limited number of coming-of-age films that focus on black and brown characters means critics tend to reach for the closest comparison – in this case Lee Daniels’ Precious (also starring Gabourey Sidibe). But there are other ways of thinking about Yelling. After the Harlem screening, Mahoney recalled complaints from viewers who felt they didn’t understand the characters’ motivations: who was Ola’s baby father? And where does the mother disappear to for almost a year? Mahoney points out that in life, unlike in a Hollywood blockbuster, problems are hardly ever neatly resolved, straggly untied ends abound. The film’s elliptical style reaches for a kind of realism that is welcome in an industry that often consigns non-white characters to documentary, sidekick, or caricature.
Yelling to the Sky is out now in NYC. As part of its multi-platform release the film is also available on demand with select cable providers, and via digital download. See more exclusive pics of stars Zoe Kravitz and Tariq Trotter on the set of the film after the jump.
Photos: Kirsten Johnson & Andre Lamberston