Rap gets risky in a nice YA movie

TORONTO — Much is known about ‘On the Come Up,’ a young adult film that premiered Thursday at the Toronto International Film Festival.

Bri (Jamila C. Gray), a 16-year-old aspiring rapper, rises from nightly rap battles at an underground venue called The Ring in her fictional hometown of Garden Heights to becoming the most played song on radio.

Movie review

Running time: 115 minutes. Rated PG-13 (strong language, sexual innuendo, thematic elements, some violence and drug material). Coming to Paramount+ on September 23rd

We’ve seen this basic premise before.

More compelling than the tried and tested “Star is Born” storyline, however, are important questions that director Sanaa Lathan’s film raises about music and art in general. Is Rapper a Job Like Any Other, and Is It Okay to Do Anything to Get Paid? Should listeners take extreme imagery and text—about guns, murder, drugs—so literally? Can well-intentioned art cause irreparable damage?

For a teenage film based on the 2019 novel of the same name by Angie Thomas (“The Hate U Give”), the answers are refreshingly complex and nuanced. No character can simply be labeled bad or good, even the ones we love most like Bri’s aunt and manager Pooh (Da’Vine Joy Randolph). And though Bri’s journey is too long, it’s satisfying.

The teenager goes by the stage name Lil’ Law because her late father was a well-known rapper named Lawless. Now she lives with her mother Jay (Lathan), who left the family years ago because she is addicted to heroin. Jay conquers her demons, tries to find a job and keeps the lights and hot water on while Bri and Pooh try to make it big ringside and get the family out of there forever.

Bri (Jamila C. Gray) is an aspiring rapper "On the come up."
Bri (Jamila C. Gray) is an aspiring rapper on “On the Come Up.”
Courtesy of TIFF

In the context of the film, her raps are improvised (they were written by Rapsody), and as they’re performed by Gray, they really feel off-the-cuff because of the rich emotion she gives them. Moment by moment she discovers piercing words, and the impact is often thunderous.

Her trio of supportive friends, Malik (Michael Cooper Jr.), Sonny (Miles Gutierrez-Riley), and Milez (Justin Martin), are all cute, funny, and close-knit — an integral part of a relatable YA film.

Mike Epps plays an amusing radio guy named DJ Hype who takes Bri to task for her hit song and the events it sparks in the community.

Bri's (Jamila C. Gray) best friends are Malik (Michael Cooper, Jr.), Milez (Justin Martin), and Sonny (Miles Gutierrez-Riley).
Bri’s (Jamila C. Gray) best friends are Malik (Michael Cooper Jr.), Milez (Justin Martin), and Sonny (Miles Gutierrez-Riley).
Courtesy of TIFF

However, the adults we spend the most time with are music producer Supreme (Cliff “Method Man” Smith) and Aunt Pooh. Supreme is a bit like Ursula in The Little Mermaid in offering Bri the world if she would only sell her soul. Smith plays it skillfully with a straight keel. His intentions are less evil than wise and realistic. He tells her matter-of-factly, “You know what white kids in the suburbs love? Music that scares their parents.”

Meanwhile, the competing Pu has her problems. She gets caught up in a gang war and sometimes accidentally puts Bri in danger. But she wants Bri to stay true to herself. Randolph exudes warmth and humor in the role of Pooh as she guides her niece and at times exposes personal flaws.

Lathan, who has had a long and fruitful acting career on TV shows like The Affair, is doing well in her first attempts at directing. It has just enough visual flair not to overwhelm the rich characters and lively location.

There are some pesky editing errors in some scenes, but I suspect these dropouts will be less noticeable on a TV than they are on the big screen when this hits Paramount+.

https://nypost.com/2022/09/09/on-the-come-up-tiff-review-rap-gets-risky-in-nice-ya-movie/ Rap gets risky in a nice YA movie

Emma Bowman

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