The ambitions of indie coming-of-age drama “Yelling to the Sky” must be admired. Set within a violent, lower-class suburb, it explores how a fractured home life nearly destroys teenager Sweetness O’Hara (Zoë Kravitz). With a verbally and physically abusive dad (Jason Clarke), a mom (Yolonda Ross) made comatose by depression, and peers (including Gabourey Sidibe) who routinely beat her to a pulp, Sweetness decides the only way to survive is to deal drugs.
Writer-director Victoria Mahoney’s film aims for rawness, shining a harsh spotlight on an underprivileged teen’s desperate search for parental acceptance and personal dignity. But “Yelling to the Sky” is a mess. It’s a structural shambles, as if the bleakest footage from the O’Hara family home videos were cut-up, shuffled, and blindly spliced back together without rhyme or reason. It’ll have you yelling in exasperation.
Major plot events are swiftly discarded. Sweetness witnesses a supporting character’s murder; she totals her sister’s car; she snorts cocaine with her guidance counselor (Tim Blake Nelson) at a party. These impactful events have no consequence on the narrative or character dynamics. The subsequent scenes tick along as if nothing happened.
Character motivations lack scene-to-scene sense. Why does Sweetness’ sister (Antonique Smith) strangle Sweetness for wrecking her car in one scene, then warmly laughs with her while washing dishes the next? When Sweetness chats with her guidance counselor about college, did they forget last week’s coke binge? What’s the point of Sweetness’ father’s constant entrances and exits? And what about the murdered dude? The film is less about a dysfunctional family and more a study of dysfunctional storytelling.
All this leaves little for the actors to play—they are only directed to scowl, glare intensely at the ground, and occasionally cry. Meanwhile, the camera lingers on a pot of gravy, or hands at the dinner table, or just the sky, in a misguided attempt to impart importance to the mundane. As Sweetness casually dishes drugs to neighborhood kids, the schizo music shifts from indie guitar strumming to hardcore hip-hop. Are we in “Dawson’s Creek” or “Girlz n the Hood”?
Because of the film’s insistent funereal pace, forgive me for chuckling when sassy bully Gabourey Sidibe gets dragged by her hair across the school hallway by tiny, vengeful Zoë Kravitz.
The film sincerely strives for emotional maturity, but without a discernible narrative, comprehensible character motivations, or a thematic thread to latch onto, “Yelling to the Sky” merely whimpers with unfocused gloom.
Critic’s Score: D
Directed by Victoria Mahoney
Casting by Eyde Belasco
Starring Zoë Kravitz, Jason Clarke, Gabourey Sidibe, Tim Blake Nelson