Yelling to the Sky opens with a gang of teenagers harassing two young girls in order to steal their bicycle. Suddenly, a young woman named Ola (Antonique Smith) flies out of a house and beats one of the young men to a pulp, thus rescuing her younger sister Sweetness (Zoë Kravitz) and her friend. Ola learned this vicious violence from her father Gordon O’Hara (Jason Clarke), who alternately beats the two girls and their mother and then smiles and spoon-feeds the mother who is “depressed.” Sometimes she’s not so depressed that she can’t retrieve her purse and disappear for a few days. The father also disappears occasionally which brings intermittent peace into the house. Eventually, pregnant Ola leaves to live with her boyfriend but soon returns with the baby, another mouth to feed.
This movie is really about Sweetness (which reminds me of Precious – another young black girl with problems. The ghost of Precious flits throughout the film, as Gabourey Sidibe, who starred as Precious in the 2009 film of the same name, here plays a high school punk). Sweetness goes to high school and counteracts bullying with her own form of force. She dresses like a hooker, sells drugs, smokes and drinks. Three-fourths along, she has an epiphany, sees the light, asks the school counselor for a second chance and unbelievably becomes an industrious, successful student. Her father has also become some kind of new-born: he meets her every day after school to walk her home in safety. Supposedly! My theory is that Sweetness, who is slowly becoming independent, threatens to slip from his control which he wants to keep, probably with incest in mind.
Not so, says director and writer Victoria Mahoney from New York City where the film was made over 18 short days in Queens. At the Berlinale press conference she said that the story is based on her personal experiences growing up in a mix-race family (the film father is white and the mother African-American), although Mahoney’s long, bright-blond hair and light skin denies a mixed heritage. She said that there had never been any films about multi-racial families and their special problems while she was growing up; she aimed to remedy that. Then, she contradicts herself to add that these problems are universal and could happen to anyone; she dares to compare herself to Eugene O’Neill and Long Day’s Journey into Night. Actually, the problems are clichés: violence against wives, strong women standing up to meet their fates, out-of-wedlock birth, street harassment, drugs, drink, redemption, lower middle class, adolescence, alcoholism. You name it; been there, done that.
The film’s highlights are close-ups of food on the dinner table; the best line comes in the first ten minutes: “Hey, you high-yella hefer.” Concerning financial support for the film, producer Billy Mulligan quoted friends in the U.S., “No one outside of NYC would come see this film. However, a nod from the Berlinale helps immensely, so we now hope for an international audience. Victoria is only the third woman to show a debut film in competition in 61 years of the Berlinale.” Good for Billy, but why did the Berlinale generously invite this film? Perhaps because actress Zoë Kravitz is the beautiful, talented daughter of musician Lenny Kravitz. I hope that Mahoney will come up with a good film soon; after researching how she pulled herself up, with various writing, acting, and even hotel-cleaning jobs, from nobody to a grant for the Sundance screenwriter workshop, she deserves success, but this film is not it. Mahoney, Sidibe, Kravitz, and Yolanda Ross (plays the mother) should get credit for their red carpet appearances in skimpy evening dresses sans coats, scarves, and gloves on a cold, dark February evening. Mahoney hired a body builder to carry her into the theater – one way to keep warm – but that was too tacky for European tastes. Save him for Los Angeles, baby; we are cheering for you.