Most of adolescence is spent unsuccessfully trying to be yourself, whoever that is. Fads, phases, friends come and go based on how you see yourself based on how others see you. In Yelling to the Sky, Victoria Mahoneyâ€™s directorial debut, Sweetness Oâ€™Hara (ZoÃ« Kravitz) tries on different personas in an attempt to better understand herself, her identity as someone from a biracial household, a gentle person who turns to violence. The film artfully expresses the newness of being a teenager, of being a self, and the consequent ecstasy and misery that comes with it.
As a person with a multiracial background, an alcoholic White father (Jason Clarke) and mentally ill African-American mother (Yolanda Ross), Sweetness is not welcome anywhere. This is made all too clear when she is seen standing alone in the cafeteria, lunch tray in hand, White kids to the right, Black kids to the left. However, Sweetness lives in a Black neighborhood and so must constantly defend her right to consider herself Black, equal to those who taunt and bully her.
Indeed, the film opens showing Sweetness fleeing from a group of kids led by Latonya (Gabourey Sidibe) and Fatima (Shareeka Epps), only escaping when her older sister Ola (Antonique Smith) rescues her, savagely beating one of the boys responsible. Here, like in so many parts of the film, the aesthetic choices directly mirror the charactersâ€™ state of mind; the camera shakes wildly as Sweetness sprints and slowly settles as Ola takes control. But Ola is soon taken away from home due to a pregnancy leaving Sweetness vulnerable, left to fend for herself.
Almost imperceptibly, Sweetness changes. True to adolescent transitions, her transformation is palpable, yet somehow invisible. One day she wakes up a different person. This new Sweetness is no longer docile, no longer the victim. She now understands how to use her power, show her prowess. She starts to run drugs for neighborhood hero Roland (Tariq Trotter), dresses the part in skimpy clothes and hoop gold earrings emblazoned with her name, begins smoking weed and drinking. Again, the artistic decisions made by Mahoney directly reflect the storyline; in one montage, the music alternates between Joni Mitchell and The Notorious B.I.G., highlighting her polar nature, the truth of both sides. And for a little while, the power feels good.
Soon, the other side of this new lifestyle rears its head. Real repercussions come about in a world that felt fake, for show, and Sweetness is left adrift with friends she does not recognize and problems she is not equipped to solve. Guidance Counselor Mr. Coleman (Tim Blake Nelson) offers advice, but he, like everyone Sweetness encounters, does not come without major flaws.
The polarity that Mahoney explores is best seen in Kravitzâ€™s performance. At times dogged and fierce, at others tender and naÃ¯ve, Kravitz is the pulse of the film, its driving force. When Sweetness feels or does something, the world changes, not the other way around. Similarly, the audience is never a step ahead of her; we are not allowed to see or know things before she does. This is a first-person narrative, and Mahoney makes sure we experience the world through Sweetnessâ€™s eyes. At times gripping, at others a little too forceful, Yelling to the Sky puts you in a world of uncertainty, of loss, and of love. Mahoney and Kravitz show how hard it is to know yourself as a teen, and how family can help.
Reviewed at the 2011 SXSW Film Festival.