If you’ve seen enough movies, you’ve seen “Yelling To The Sky.” There’s a slight disappointment that, as a bleak inner-city coming-of-age film, this picture is part of its own subgenre. Not only because of the familiarity to some audience members, but also due to the fact that these pictures consistently reflect a serious divide within the middle class. In this picture, the characters aren’t necessarily poor, but they might as well be, as cabinets fall apart as often as the characters’ own composures.
Our first scene establishes that duality, as pretty but unassuming high schooler Sweetness (of course!) is attacked on the street in broad daylight by bullies, both male and female, poised to do serious harm. With no provocation, the audience is thrust into the everyday violence of Sweetness’ life, calibrated to each raised fist. “Precious” star Gabourey Sidibe is present, almost as shorthand, as a vicious bully who can’t resist a cheap sucker punch. When Sweetness’ big sister descends with her own brand of justice, the thugs and hangers-on disperse, quickly establishing the tenuous social hierarchy of the block. The big reveal? Big sister Ola is also nursing a pregnancy.
Home life promises no relief for besieged Sweetness, as she merely sidesteps her distant mother, who might as well be a ghost. Mom floats from room to room, often speaking very little, seemingly unaware of her surroundings. It’s not mental illness, but rather some form of shellshock, never explained. Dad isn’t much better, having returned from war more than broken. The divide between him and his daughters is considerable, not because of his skin color (he is white) but because he ambles around the house drunk on no particular schedule, his randomly abusive treatment acts as a way to restore a twisted hierarchy that Sweetness and Ola cannot abide by any longer. Ola has the excuse of a supportive boyfriend ready to whisk her away. Sweetness isn’t so fortunate.
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What follows isn’t the expected hitting of the books, or perhaps an after-school athletic diversion. Instead, Sweetness embraces a heel turn, casting her lot with two faceless sidekicks and becoming an entrepreneur in the drug trade, and a shot-calling bully. Her support systems continue to fall away as she gets high off her own supply. There’s no assistance from her parents, and her sister has one foot out the door. Soon to graduate, Sweetness makes an all-too-late visit to the guidance counselor (Tim Blake Nelson), only for him to throw up his hands in helplessness. Even solidarity with the local drug dealer (Tariq “Black Thought” Trotter of The Roots) goes nowhere: a come-on is rejected with business-like formality, stymieing her last considerable hope for a friend.
There are few places for this narrative to turn that are both authentic and unfamiliar, but writer-director Victoria Mahoney eschews them anyway, in the hopes that the film’s emotional gravity is enough to sustain the picture on its own. At moments, she’s correct: Zoe Kravitz gives a sensitive, inward performance as a teenager self-consciously forcing herself into inorganic directions. And there are several highlights amongst the supporting cast: the evolution of Sidibe’s monstrous bully, particularly as she’s placed on the defensive, hint at the possible counter-cultural cachet Sidibe might soon wield if she fills her CV with outlandish supporting roles like this, like a modern-day combination of Mary Wornov and Grace Jones. And Jason Clarke, so strong in this year’s “Lawless” and “Zero Dark Thirty,” is appropriately lived-in as Sweetness’ transient father, who shows the greatest on-screen change of anyone in the film as soon as he realizes the beast he’s become.
It’s unfortunate that “Yelling To The Sky” is a paperweight, hitting narrative beats with a workmanlike competence that yields no room for surprises. A drive-by hit here, a toking-up montage there, all amidst the consistent revelations of authority figures undermining their status. Poor Sweetness feels trapped not in an urban nightmare but in a Moebius strip of story outcomes that feel arbitrary, creating no rising action beyond, “here comes another shitty development.” Kravitz is game, but it’s doubtful any actress would be able to create a memorable characterization with this sort of amorphous allegiance to indie storytelling. [C+]