Rap gets risky in nice YA movie


TORONTO — People are familiar with the young adult film “On the Come Up,” which premiered Thursday at the Toronto International Film Festival.

Bri (Jamila C. Gray) is a 16-year-old aspiring rapper who fights her late-night rap battles at an underground venue called Ring in her fictional hometown of Garden Heights, then tops the radio.

film review

Run time: 115 minutes. Rated PG-13 (strong language, sexually suggestive, thematic elements, some violent and drug material). September 23 at Paramount+

This basic premise, we have seen before.

Beyond the tried and true star-born storyline, however, the more potent question is director Sanaa Lathan’s film’s overall take on music and art. Is a rapper the same as any other job? Can I do anything to get paid? Should listeners take extreme imagery and lyrics — about guns, murder, drugs — literally? Can the art of kindness cause irreparable harm?

For a film aimed at young people, based on Angie Thomas’ 2019 novel of the same name (“The Hate U Give”), the answers are refreshingly complex and nuanced. No character can be simply classified as bad or good, not even our favorites like Bri’s aunt and manager Pooh (Da’Vine Joy Randolph). And, despite the length of time, Bri’s journey was satisfying.

The teenage girl’s stage name was Lil’ Law because her late father was a famous rapper named Lawless. She now lives with her mother Jay (Lathan), who left the family a few years ago because she is a heroin addict. Jay is conquering her inner demons, trying to get a job and keeping the lights on, while Winnie the Pooh is trying to shine in the ring and get his family out of there forever.

Bri (Jamila C. Gray) is an aspiring rapper on “On the Come Up.”
provided by TIFF

In the context of this film, her raps are improvised (they were written by Rapsody) and, as Grey performs, they do feel improvised thanks to the richness of emotion she gives them. Every now and then she finds harsh words, often with thunderous effect.

Her three supporting friends, Malik (Michael Cooper Jr.), Sonny (Miles Gutierrez-Riley), and Milez (Justin Martin), are sweet, funny and close–it’s A vital part of a relevant YA movie.

Mike Epps plays a fun broadcaster named DJ Hype, who takes Bri to finish her hit song and the events it sparks in the community.

Bri (Jamila C. Gray) best friends are Malik (Michael Cooper, Jr.), Milez (Justin Martin) and Sonny (Miles Gutierrez-Riley).  Rap gets risky in nice YA movie onthecomeup 04
Bri (Jamila C. Gray) best friends are Malik (Michael Cooper Jr.), Milez (Justin Martin) and Sonny (Miles Gutierrez-Riley).
provided by TIFF

The adults we spend the most time with, though, are music producer Supreme (Cliff “Method Man” Smith) and Aunt Pooh. Supreme is a bit like Ursula from The Little Mermaid, as long as Bri sells his soul, he will give her the whole world. Smith deftly kept him steady. His intentions were more shrewd and realistic than evil. He told her matter-of-factly: “You know what white kids in the suburbs like? Music that scares parents.”

Meanwhile, rival Winnie the Pooh was in trouble. She gets involved in a gang war, sometimes inadvertently putting Bree in danger. But she wants Brie to be true to herself. Randolph exudes warmth and humor in Pooh’s character as she mentors her niece and sometimes exposes personal failures.

Leyson had a long and fruitful career as an actress on TV shows like “The Affair,” and she excelled in her first directorship. She has enough visual flair to not overwhelm the rich characters and vibrant places.

There are some annoying editing hiccups in some scenes, but I suspect when this hits the Paramount+, those blips will be less noticeable on the TV than on the big screen.

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