‘On the Come Up’ Review: Messy, Dark Spinoff Family Drama

“You could have killed me for a pack of Skittles! These are the legitimately angry words of 16-year-old Bri (Jamila C. Grey), a talented young rapper who — after smuggling candy to her peers at her mostly white high school — comes under attack from high school kids too zealous and violent security guards. It’s also one of many moments in actor-turned-director Sanaa Lathan’s debut feature, “On the Come Up,” which, in an attempt to imbue its world of history with some kind of meaningful politics , casually refers to the murder of Trayvon Martin.

Martin is, of course, just one of many, but he is invoked as something of a catch-all representative of black youth experiencing racialized violence at the hands of police officers. Lathan’s film, adapted from the 2019 novel of the same name by “The Hate U Give” author Angie Thomas, is positioned as a coming-of-age drama following young Bri as she navigates the world of combat rap in the fictional housing projects of Garden Heights. Unfortunately, it is these exact sorts of hollow parallels that make up most of its presupposed substance.

Bri is the daughter of the late rapper and beloved neighborhood character Lawless, who was killed on the verge of even greater success. Her mother, Jay (Sanaa Lathan), is a handful of years into her recovery from drug use, a fact that is often cruelly thrown in Bri’s face when she faces other fight rappers in the ring (literal ). Precariousness characterizes Bri’s entire life, from Jay’s childhood absence to her older brother who had to drop out of his master’s program to help support their family.

It’s clear that while Bri has both the lyrical chops and the wit to carry on her father’s legacy, the urgency of her daily life parallels her motivations as a rapper. After decimating a former local rapper turned mainstream hit named Milez (Justin Martin) in the fight ring, Bri is introduced to Supreme (Method Man), a savvy manager who isn’t shy about stretching the resources the young girl has. and his family desperately need. Also in that orbit is Bri’s Aunt Pooh (Da’Vine Joy Rudolph), her manager and mentor who isn’t shy about talking about her hustle without enough to show it.

With such a well-rehearsed, if not exhausted, story, the contributions of “On the Come Up” are too limited. It looks dated, both in scope and form. The characters here are reduced to cliched stereotypes, a fact all the more ironic as Lathan’s film quickly uses such stereotypes to shape the core of its story. Except for a handful of scenes focusing on Bri, her friends and family in more intimate moments, the film’s dialogue and plot are obvious and lack both identity and dynamism.

There is an absence of life in “On the Come Up” and compared to other well-received, if not classic, films of the recent past that cover much of the same story and character trajectories (“8 Mile” and “Hustle & Flow” come to mind in particular), Lathan’s film lacks soul and spirit. finish line, he does so apparently without much belief in himself, or perhaps more accurately, a deeply mistaken belief.

Those familiar with the feature film adaptation of “The Hate U Give” will notice the unchanging nature of author Thomas’ politics, the heavy-handed way in which they thrash about and refuse to refine themselves outside of their own over-eager announcement. It is not only black death, but black life, which is realized here in the most reductive forms. At its core, this is a film whose story is more concerned with the twin powers of respectability and authenticity, a reality that also expresses itself as an unintended meta-commentary on the work itself. -same.

At best, “On the Come Up” lacks the vocals, craftsmanship, and perspective to reshape its source material; at worst, he is content – ​​even celebrating – with his own undeveloped nature. It’s yet another addition to the burgeoning production of films that claim to deliver meaningful black stories on screen, but instead deliver a confusing tangle of ideas that, frankly, don’t add up to much.

‘On the rise’

Note : PG-13, for coarse language, sexual references, thematic elements, material on violence and drugs

Operating time: 1 hour 56 minutes

Playing: In general version; broadcast on Paramount+