Actress Sanaa Lathan (“Love and Basketball,” “The Finest Man” franchise, “Succession”) makes her directorial debut with the teenager drama “On the Come Up,” centering on teenager Brianna ‘Bri’ Jackson (Jamila C. Grey), who’s striving to make her mark as a rapper, initially by rap battles. As a result of her father Lawless Jackson is a legend who not solely gained battles but additionally acquired to report previous to being killed, Bri has large sneakers to fill.
Making it as a rapper shouldn’t be Bri’s major problem, nonetheless. When her mom Jay (Lathan), a recovering drug addict, loses her job, the household faces even better monetary strain. To assist make ends meet, Bri is already promoting sweet, however that stops when she is frighteningly manhandled by faculty safety, bringing a racial-justice story into the fold. Her household’s want for cash makes her much more decided to realize success.
Whereas rap-battling provides her that chance, the potential an excellent greater payday supplied one in all her father’s former associates, Supreme (Methodology Man), forces Bri to make private concessions that cover who she is. That causes a pressure along with her Aunt Pooh (a wonderful Da’Vine Pleasure Randolph) — who can also be her supervisor in addition to an lively gang member — and one in all her finest buddies (and potential love curiosity), Malik (Michael Cooper Jr.). On high of that, Bri nonetheless has unresolved points along with her mom abandoning her and her brother Trey (Titus Makin) when her habit took over. Cruelly, her battle-rap opponents use that and different vulnerabilities to throw her off her sport.
“On the Come Up” represents a stable directorial effort for Lathan, who caught her toe in these waters with a well-received quick she shot through the pandemic. (Directing can also be a household enterprise; her father Stan Lathan has a distinguished profession as a movie and TV director, stretching again to the Nineteen Seventies.) The youthful Lathan’s route comes throughout confidently whereas additionally exuding a definite fashion that’s utterly consistent with the movie’s predominant theme — darkish and gritty, but hopeful.
Performances from the principle forged, together with her personal, are sturdy. Lathan’s Jay is the portrait of a mom and recovering addict we don’t typically see. Because the movie progresses, it turns into more and more clear that, even at her lowest, Jay prioritized the welfare of her kids, even when it meant leaving them behind. And in her sober state, she emerges as one in all her daughter’s best champions.
A few of that goodwill additionally applies to Jay’s sister, Bri’s Aunt Pooh. Though she is entrenched in gang life, she appears decided as each Bri’s supervisor and her aunt to not let her niece get caught up in that world. Like Jay, she desires higher for Bri. Randolph’s rendering of her is spectacular: She loves, protects, and pushes Bri, and most significantly, she calls her out, letting her know that her phrases have life-and-death penalties and shouldn’t be delivered calmly.
Grey owns Bri, making it unattainable to think about anybody else within the position. Even when she doesn’t all the time promote us on her prowess as a possible star rapper, she by no means fails to embody a younger lady getting ready to womanhood struggling along with her feelings and searching for a method to make use of her voice and to have her say. Assist from Lathan’s and Randolph’s performances appears to bolster Grey’s presence whereas additionally presenting totally different variations of Black womanhood, particularly in city environments.
The position Bri’s finest buddies Sonny (Miles Guiterrez-Riley) and Malik play in her life stands out, primarily as a result of these younger males assist her in methods not often ever captured on the massive or small display screen. As Bri faces off towards her many adversaries within the male-dominated battle-rap underground and industrial music business, Sonny and Malik’s presence function a reminder that not all younger Black males are towards her. Identical to her father and her brother (the latter will get little or no display screen time), there are different Black males who love and elevate her up.
Sadly, all shouldn’t be praiseworthy in “On the Come Up.” Regardless of having acclaimed feminine rapper Rapsody as a advisor and coach, the rhymes through the battles don’t seize the tense moments in the best way “8 Mile,” to which this movie can be in contrast, did. Additionally, the deliveries by each Grey’s Bri and her different sparring companions, together with real-life rapper Lil Yachty (who performs established rapper Notorious Millz), ring out as extra spoken-word than rap. As vital as phrases are in a battle, so is the movement and supply. There’s a cadence that separates rap from spoken-word, and that distinction shouldn’t be captured right here.
At too many factors, the script from Kay Oyegun (adapting the novel by Angie Thomas) is uneven: Some story beats transfer too quick, whereas others go too slowly, and there are narrative holes. Nonetheless, even with its flaws, “On the Come Up” — like 2018’s “The Hate U Give” — provides Black teen women a voice in cinema that they’ve not often had earlier than. Lathan mines that gold, making her debut shine.
“On the Come Up” premieres on Paramount+ September 23.