Review: Victoria Mahoney’s “Yelling to the Sky”

Yelling to the Sky, actress-turned-director Victoria Mahoney’s debut feature, immediately sets up what we’re in for in its very first scene, that of its protagonist Sweetness (Zoe Kravitz) being beaten mercilessly by a group of neighborhood toughs, including the roughest of them all, played by Gabourey Sidibe of Precious. In contrast to that earlier role, the bully she portrays here isn’t developed much further than it is here. And that points to the main problem with this film; it is obviously very heartfelt and personal, but it is unfortunately wedded to the most tired “hood” clichés of urban life: drug dealing, drug use, out-of-wedlock childbirth, domestic abuse, and it relentlessly piles on the misery in a way that becomes exhausting and tedious. What’s worse, it weds this exhausted subject matter with pretensions borrowed from European directors, at least according to Mahoney – in the Q&A after its screening at the Walter Reade theater, she cited the influence of Andrea Arnold and Ken Loach. To which I can only respond with a variation of Lloyd Bentsen’s response to Dan Quayle’s self-comparison to JFK during their famous vice-presidential debate: I’ve seen Loach and Arnold’s films, and Ms. Mahoney, you are no Loach or Arnold. Another problem is that the film, or should I say its director, wants us to applaud it simply for the fact of its existence: Mahoney claims that it is the very first American film to feature a mixed-race (black and white) female main character. I haven’t yet researched this, but somehow this feels incorrect to me. Presumably the reason that Sweetness is so harassed in her neighborhood is because of her mixed-race heritage (white father, black mother), although this is never directly expressed in the film.Yelling to the Sky, along with ImageNation, the foundation under whose aegis this screening was held (this organization promotes black and Latino film and filmmakers), wraps itself tightly in its noble intentions, but forgets to offer material worthy of celebration. Underrepresented ethnic groups do themselves no favors by promoting artistically inferior work based on the misguided notion that somehow this will benefit them in the industry; in fact, it does exactly the opposite. The sole aspect of this film that makes it watchable are its actors, who acquit themselves well across the board, most especially Kravitz, who I’m sure will be fantastic with material worthy of her, and Tariq Trotter, better known as Black Thought of the Roots, as the friendliest drug dealer you could ever hope to meet.