Somewhere in Garden Heights, the fictional American town at the center of On the Come Up, is an imposing mural of Lawless, one of the community’s biggest rappers. His daughter Bri Jackson (Jamila C. Gray), who goes by the moniker Lil’ Law, makes frequent visits to this vibrant portrait when she needs guidance. It’s a meditative exercise, a way to refocus. Bri is determined to become one of the greatest rappers to come out of the Heights — just like her dad.
On the Come Up, Sanaa Lathan’s cool, confident directorial debut, chronicles the 16-year-old’s journey to becoming a star and honoring her dead father’s legacy. The film, which premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival and will be released by Paramount+ on September 23, is based on Angie Thomas’ novel of the same name. Thomas, whose debut novel The Hate U Give was also given the big-screen treatment, has, over the years, become a kind of contemporary bard for young Black kids, sensitively narrativizing their coming-of-age stories. Her style might not be new (she works in a similar lexicon to authors like Sister Souljah), but they have seized the zeitgeist’s attention.
On the Come Up
The Bottom Line
An assured directorial debut.
Venue: Toronto International Film Festival (Special Presentations, TIFF Next Wave)
Release date: Friday, Sept. 23 (Paramount+)
Cast: Jamila C. Gray, Da’Vine Joy Randolph, Lil Yachty, Mike Epps, Miles Gutierrez-Riley,
Director: Sanaa Lathan
Screenwriter: Kay Oyegun
Rated PG-13, 1 hour 55 minutes
Lathan’s adaptation, with a screenplay by Kay Oyegun, captures the youthful edge and poetry of Thomas’ novel. On the Come Up is a wide-ranging narrative about family, chasing your dreams and maintaining integrity that will undoubtedly find fans among younger audiences. Even when it stacks the clichés, becoming a bit too reliant on the requisite melodramatic beats, the film doesn’t lose its heart.
There are few places where Bri feels at peace. But when she stands in front of her father’s mural, fingering a gold necklace he gave her before his death, she can momentarily forget her laundry list of worries. Her mother Jay (played by Lathan), a recovering heroin addict, is months behind on rent and electricity. Her brother Trey (Titus Makin) tries to help, but his job at the pizzeria only pays so much. At school, Bri and her best friends Malik (Michael Cooper Jr.) and Sonny (Miles Gutierrez-Riley) face constant surveillance from the security guards who find them more suspicious than the rest of the mostly white student body.
Rapping is another salve. Standing in The Ring, a local boxing center where aspiring and established rappers come to battle, Bri assumes a different personality. Her lyrics, penned here by North Carolina rapper Rapsody, showcase a slick flow and verbal dexterity. Her performance doubles as a release valve for the pressures around her. When she gets in the zone, she soars.
On the Come Up opens with Bri trying to battle with M-Dot (GaTa), a local rapper, but the young girl chokes before the competition even gets underway. Thrown by M-Dot’s references to her mother’s heroin addiction and her father’s passing, Bri furiously rushes off the stage instead of spitting back. Following closely behind her is her manager and aunt, Pooh (a marvelous Da’Vine Joy Randolph), who tries to remind Bri that failure is part of the process. She encourages her niece to never give up, one of the film’s recurring lessons.
Bri tries to keep that in mind and eventually gets back in The Ring, but her return is a bitter one. A day after her battle with M-Dot, Bri gets physically assaulted by one of the school’s security personnel. Citing Bri’s history of “aggressive” behavior and of selling contraband (candy) on school property, the school administrators suspended her. The situation is compounded by the fact that Jay has lost her job at the church due to budget cuts. With her fragile reality trembling, Bri doubles down on her rap dreams. She returns to the Ring and wins a battle against Milez (Michael Cooper Jr), a local favorite and the son of Lawless’ old manager Supreme (Method Man). The epic exchange redeems Bri and puts her on the map.
An increased profile makes Bri question Aunt Pooh’s ability to manage her. After a dicey situation — instigated in part by Pooh’s longstanding feud with another gang — gets the young rapper banned from The Ring, Bri drops her aunt and signs with Supreme. But that sweet deal has a sinister underside, especially as Supreme encourages the young rapper to write songs and adopt a persona that caters to rap’s biggest consumers — white suburban kids.
As an adaptation, On the Come Up doesn’t have much narrative flexibility. Lathan is wed to Thomas’ complex story, which doesn’t always translate seamlessly to the screen. There are parts of the film — Bri’s parking-lot battle with another woman rapper, Sonny’s burgeoning queer relationship and even Bri’s own romantic ventures — that feel undercooked, touching on themes we never return to. The film, already nearly two hours, would need to be twice as long to fully develop these plot points, which lean on cliché and awkward exposition to fit into the narrative.
On the Come Up finds its groove and feels most realized when it focuses on Bri’s battles, especially the moving finale, and her relationship with her mother and Pooh. Rapsody’s clever and expressive lyrics deepen our understanding of Bri, who struggles to define herself amid all the rumors about her family. Each rap that Gray performs with a playful, endearing energy represents a step in Bri’s growth in becoming someone she’s proud of. That same tenderness flickers in Bri’s communions with her mother and Pooh, two women who approach and cope with their circumstances differently but share a commitment to Bri’s happiness and success: Their emotionally agile conversations swaddle the young teen in warmth when she needs it most and challenge. her when she thinks she doesn’t, helping Bri get closer to the person she wants to be.
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