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AUSTIN — An elliptical portrait of at-risk youth where little if anything is unambiguous, Victoria Mahoney’s Yelling to the Sky drips with a strange but sometimes moving nostalgia for environs its characters clearly want to escape. Its artful indirectness leaves enough gaps to present commercial difficulties, but the right kind of attention on the fest circuit could support an art-house run.
Set in Queens but with no specific geographical references (and few rooting it to any definite time period), the movie focuses on a mixed-race home in which two girls, Sweetness (Zoe Kravitz) and Ola (Antonique Smith), are raised by a white father — alcoholic and prone to abuse, but caring when sober — and a black mother afflicted with mental-health issues we never understand.
The early appearance of Precious‘ Gabourey Sidibe as a neighborhood bully may cue viewers to expect something like that 2009 film’s descent into misery, but abuse and crime are far less sensationalized here. Sweetness and Ola may hide under the kitchen table when Dad’s on a tear, but writer/director Mahoney (making her debut) leaves any extreme mistreatment offscreen. (The pic’s most gory scene, in fact, is an act of familial kindness — as Sweetness holds mirrors so her father can stitch his head up after getting in a fight.)
As Sweetness, Kravitz has to undergo a major transformation with practically no help from the script: When her pregnant big sister runs off, she undergoes an identity crisis and deliberately chooses to become a harder person — convincing a local drug dealer to help her start dealing and recruiting two identically dressed bad girls to form a tiny but tough gang.
Kravitz approaches the change matter-of-factly, offering little outward hint of the character’s motivations; some viewers will be frustrated by an inability to identify with the character, while others will embrace the opaqueness as unsentimental realism.
Elsewhere, the film isn’t averse to sentiment, portraying even deeply flawed characters in a nearly noble light, particularly the drug dealer (Tariq Trotter) who spreads his money around the neighborhood charitably.
Warm vibes are echoed in the cinematography (which makes even a troubled home glow with late-afternoon hues) and in an intriguing soundtrack, where Joni Mitchell alternates with hip-hop much as crime and kindness compete within Sweetness’s persona.
Venue: South by Southwest Film Festival, Spotlight Premieres section
Production Company: Mahoney/Mulligan Productions
Cast: Zoe Kravitz, Jason Clarke, Antonique Smith, Yolonda Ross, Gabourey Sidibe, Tim Blake Nelson, Tariq Trotter, Shareeka Epps
Director, screenwriter: Victoria Mahoney
Producers: Victoria Mahoney, Ged Dickersin, Billy Mulligan, Diane Houslin
Director of photography: Reed Morano
Production designer: Kelly McGehee
Music: David Wittman
Costume designer: Nia Hooper
Editor: Bill Henry
Sales: Josh Braun
No rating, 95 minutes
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