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Review Of "Yelling To The Sky" (Call It The Cinematic Equivalent Of Miles Davis' "Bitches Brew")

Photo of Tambay A. Obenson By Tambay A. Obenson | Shadow and Act June 10, 2011 at 3:03AM

Soon after last night’s NYC premiere of Victoria Mahoney’s feature film directorial debut, Yelling To The Sky, I congratulated Victoria on the accomplishment, and in an attempt to summarize my thoughts on the work, I told her that my immediate reaction was, after a very brief hesitation, “positive,” with an obvious uncertainty. She laughed! I followed :)
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Soon after last night’s NYC premiere of Victoria Mahoney’s feature film directorial debut, Yelling To The Sky, I congratulated Victoria on the accomplishment, and in an attempt to summarize my thoughts on the work, I told her that my immediate reaction was, after a very brief hesitation, “positive,” with an obvious uncertainty. She laughed! I followed :)

Uncertainty because, as I added in my conversation with her, it was maybe a little too soon for me to really and fully express how I felt about the film, given it was a matter of a few minutes after the screening and Q&A session ended. “Positive” simply just doesn’t even begin to describe the depth of emotion I felt in watching the film, as I came to realize hours later.

What I came to realize I felt in that moment is more akin to numbness - a numbness that was brought on by the assault on the senses and emotions Yelling To The Sky is; but that’s actually a good thing, so stay with me here for a little bit.

It’s a rare occurrence that a film is able to create a world that’s so vivid and raw that I’m sucked in and totally immersed in the world the characters live in, experiencing every moment as if I really am right there with them; So immersed that when the film ends, it’s only then that I realize how involved I was, which leads to the disorientation I felt, and, given the roller-coaster of emotions the 90-minute Yelling To The Sky is, from one extreme to another, the numbness I felt immediately after seeing the film makes total sense! But that’s obviously a personal response than a universal one. I tend to “shut down” after experiencing something so intense – or as I already deemed it, an assault on the senses. Call it a defense mechanism. It's like you've been emotionally "exposed" by a piece of art, as it's able to force itself inside of you, and reach places that you'd normally keep shielded. And thus, the immediate reaction there is to create this wall that's meant to keep the "intruder" (the film) out. Hence, the numbness/shutting down.

Yelling To The Sky is all id. A visceral trip that hits you in the mouth from its opening frames, and grips onto you, unrelentingly until the cathartic close.

Seeped in realism, the naturalistic performances from the cast, including star Zoe Kravitz, are dynamic – vigorous and purposeful; active and changing. Nary a sequence is wasted.

Characters transform; those perceived to be weak, find strength; and the strong prove to be just as vulnerable. Lessons are learned often after extremes, and everyone isn’t exactly who they present themselves to be (or who we, the audience might instinctively classify them as).

In a scene that takes place inside the office of a teacher at the high school Zoe’s Sweetness O’Hara attends, a poster hanging on what may have been a wall (although that’s irrelevant) read something like, “Character is who you are…” and in smaller letters, “when nobody is watching.” Those may not have been the exact words, but close enough. The sentiment is the same.

As an aside, I’ll add that it’s one of those films that would require a second viewing, because there are likely other similar sub textual visual cues that support the overall story.

But the point here is that central characters definitely aren’t 2-dimensional “coming of age” movie cut-outs. They are alive, fully realized human beings, all on personal journeys, trying to make sense of the world around them, and really just find some stability amidst the chaos – the non-fleeting kind; a need that I think is universal. The saying goes that we’re all alike, and when life throws daggers our way, we become interested in one thing and one thing only – our own survival, by any means necessary.

And it’s that same “unboxed” thinking that makes the film a challenge. Like the mercurial nature of its characters, It’s just not-so easily classified. Tonal shifts are sometimes jarring, and it may at first feel chaotic, but you’ll soon come to realize, as I did some time after the screening, it’s a controlled, contained chaos, if that makes sense. Although another way to think about it, is taking into consideration that the unpredictability and uncertainty you feel in watching the film is exactly how you should feel, because Victoria does a wonderful job creating the universe Zoe Kravitz’s Sweetness O’Hara lives in, both the physical and the psychological. Hers is indeed a volatile, chaotic world, so, the fact that I was able to genuinely empathize is a credit to the film and all the talents involved in its making.

And it’s this kind of “unboxed” approach to cinema that I find appealing. Fuck safety. Take some risks. I’d more readily applaud a film that challenges the expected order of things and fails (not that this one does, by the way, but just to make a point), than one that simply repeats formula mechanically. The phrasing I’ve heard used is “assembly line cinema.”

I’ve intentionally not revealed any of the film’s plot because I actually think it’s somewhat irrelevant in this case; if you haven’t figured it out by now, based on all I’ve already said, it’s not a film that’s interested in telling the expected linear narrative. There is a story there, don’t get me wrong – one that I could probably summarize in one sentence; but the film lives on another level. On my subway ride home, almost immediately, I thought about Miles Davis, and the organic, experimental approach he used in creating some of his music – notably an album like Bitches Brew, which was recorded in just three days. The story goes... wiithout any notice, nor giving them any idea of what they were going to be working on, Davis summoned the musicians who contributed to the compilation, and, while in the recording studio, they were typically given very few instructions – mostly suggestions as to mood and tone, with his intent being to essentially force the musicians to pay very close attention to one another, to their own performances, and to Miles Davis' cues, all of which could change at any moment, without notice.

That’s almost exactly how I imagine this film was put together, which gives it, like Bitches Brew, its loose, improvisational, unconventional style. And it works!

Although, as Victoria and I discussed briefly after the screening, it’s those same reasons that make the film a challenge in the eyes of distributors, which is partly why it is still without distribution, despite the accolades its received, from its debut at the revered Berlin International Film Festival (Berlinale) in February, and its stateside premiere at the South By Southwest Film Festival in March.

And that’s unfortunate.

It’ll immediately be classified as a “black film,” I'm sure, and, from a distributor’s POV, that automatically limits its reach; and even further, given that it seems "black films" are only allowed to exist within very limited, if extreme spaces, and the need to make comparisons to previous films the norm, in order to easily classify them, Yelling To The Sky is probably something of an anomaly to distributors. It’s not Precious, it’s not Larry Clark’s Kids, it’s not an Oprah Winfrey special either. They just don’t know what exactly to do with it.

And, as another aside, speaking of Precious, one noteworthy factoid; correcting what we all believed when it was made public that she had a role in the film, Gabourey Sidibe actually got the part in Yelling To The Sky before most of us even knew about Lee Daniels’ adaptation of Sapphire’s novel. We’ve long believed that Gabourey’s participation in Yelling To The Sky was due in some part to her performance in Precious. Not quite the case.

In closing, as I already said, I think this is a film that I need to see again for a number of reasons. It ends almost as it begins, still with a similar kind of uncertainty of what will come of these characters, despite the cathartic moment that was the very last scene. In essence, I felt like I “interrupted” the lives of these people, spent about 90 minutes with them, although the film takes place over several months, immersed in this chaotic world they exist in, and then almost abruptly left in the same manner in which I entered it. They lived before I met them, and they will continue to live after I left them, however unstable that living might be.

Victoria and producer Billy Muligan said that the film will continue to travel the film festival circuit, although I have no info on where it’ll screen next. But you will know when I know, so that if it’s playing in your neck of the woods, you can see it for yourselves and reach your own conclusions. I anticipate it'll be heavily debated, and reactions will be fiery, specifically amongst African American audiences. But that's a good thing, in my humble opinion.

Here's the trailer for those who have yet to see it.


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