With Zoe Kravitz playing a character named Sweetness and Gabourey Sidibe in a supporting role, street-chastened, Queens-set coming-of-ager “Yelling to the Sky” will be hard-pressed to avoid comparisons to “Precious.” Truth be told, writer-director-producer Victoria Mahoney’s semi-autobiographical debut feels like a cup-half-full response to that bleak inner-city fable, with a stunningly beautiful fair-skinned black teen slowly awakening to the prospects of what’s ahead if she doesn’t find a way out of her neighborhood. Strong on texture but taxingly light on narrative, pic looks set for a limited domestic release at best.
The fact that this Sundance Lab project skipped Park City to debut in Berlin suggests the challenges it may face attracting Stateside attention, though plot issues aside (namely, what little there is we’ve heard too many times before), “Yelling” boasts a strong directorial voice struggling to be heard. Focused more on capturing specific impressions and memories than cooking up artificial conflict, this character-driven drama delivers the world as seen by 17-year-old Sweetness, though Mahoney’s style — rendered incredibly tactile by ace d.p. Reed Morano (“Frozen River,” “Little Birds”) — runs heavier on nostalgic touches than on in-the-moment sensory detail, as reflected in everything from a scratchy hip-hop score to such set-decorating details as a pair of old tube-style TVs stacked unused in the living room.
From the opening confrontation between Sweetness and a gang of dark-skinned girls led by street-tough Latonya (Sidibe, in her first feature role since “Precious”), the film makes clear that this environment is hostile to Sweetness’ chances of a righteous life. Things are no better at home, where Jason Clarke plays the family’s alternately attentive and abusive white father, Gordon, whose capacity for kindness seems crippled by decades of disappointment. Early on, Sweetness’ mentally ill mother (Yolonda Ross) walks out the door, leaving only pregnant older sister Ola (Antonique Smith) for Sweetness to identify with.
Smith, who appeared as “Rent’s” outgoing Mimi on Broadway, embodies what dignity looks like in this dead-end environment, but Sweetness has bigger aspirations, turning to drug dealing and petty crime to modestly improve her quality of life. At school, counselor Coleman (Tim Blake Nelson) spots the signs of trouble and tries to steer Sweetness straight, but such lessons only can be learned firsthand — and so Kravitz takes her character through a remarkable transformation from delicate introvert to self-possessed street thug.
Sweetness overhauls her look, trading girly clothes for makeup and gaudy gold jewelry. (At 22, Kravitz already looks a bit too mature for the role, but is right in so many other ways, it’s best not to quibble.) Her new identity is more independent and assertive, as Sweetness breaks away from her dysfunctional family to form a clique of her own, including drug dealer Roland (Tariq Trotter, who confidently embodies the unlikeliest of role models) and two of Latonya’s former groupies (Shareeka Epps and Sonequa Martin, playing friends so tight they clone one another’s wardrobes).
This overall trajectory is familiar enough, delivering close brushes with prison and death — the two fates that surely await should Sweetness continue on this path. But “Yelling” unfolds rather listlessly, feeling like a much longer film than it is, due to curious editing choices that, among other things, make it virtually impossible to track how much time passes between the disconnected moments, and the fact that Mahoney favors impressionistic fragments over scenes that power the story forward.
The result is inevitably didactic, but also poetic in its choice of seemingly nonessential details, as in a scene that finds Sweetness helping her father stitch up a bleeding head wound. These moments, like the colorful, cluttered house Sweetness inhabits, feel lived-in enough to be lifted directly from Mahoney’s own experience and promise to linger in our memories long after the occasional awkwardness involved in conveying them onscreen is forgotten.
In a sense, this degree of personal investment compensates for something lacking in Kravitz’s otherwise star-making performance. There’s no denying the actress’ beauty, but apart from that, she never really demonstrates what sets Sweetness apart from other girls trapped in similar straits, something narration might have solved. Mahoney, on the other hand, was clearly driven by a genuine creative gift, and escaped such restraints to unleash this affecting cri du coeur.