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Rap gets risky in nice YA movie

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TORONTO — Much is familiar about “On the Come Up,” a young-adult movie that premiered Thursday at the Toronto International Film Festival.

Bri (Jamila C. Gray), a 16-year-old aspiring rapper, rises from late-night rap battles at an underground venue called the Ring in her fictional hometown of Garden Heights to having the most-played song on the radio. 

movie review

Running time: 115 minutes. Rated PG-13 (strong language, sexual references, thematic elements, some violence and drug material). Out Sept. 23 on Paramount+

That basic premise, we’ve seen before.

More involving than the tried and true star-is-born storyline, though, are potent questions director Sanaa Lathan’s film poses about music and art in general. Is being a rapper a job just like any other, and is it OK to do whatever it takes to get paid? Should listeners take extreme imagery and lyrics — about guns, murder, drugs — so literally? Can well-meant art cause irreparable harm?

For a film aimed at young people, based on Angie Thomas’ (“The Hate U Give”) 2019 novel of the same name, the answers are refreshingly complex and nuanced. No character can be ascribed as simply bad or good, even the ones we love the most like Bri’s aunt and manager Pooh (Da’Vine Joy Randolph). And, although overlong, Bri’s journey is a satisfying one.

The teen goes by the stage name Lil’ Law because her late father was a well-known rapper called Lawless. Now she lives with her mom Jay (Lathan), who left the family years earlier because she’s a heroin addict. Jay’s conquering her demons, trying to find a job and keep the lights and hot water on, while Bri and Pooh try to make it big at the Ring and get the family out of there for good.

Bri (Jamila C. Gray) is an aspiring rapper in "On The Come Up."
Bri (Jamila C. Gray) is an aspiring rapper in “On the Come Up.”
Courtesy of TIFF

In the context of the film, her raps are improvised (they’re written by Rapsody), and as performed by Gray, they really do feel off-the-cuff because of the rich emotion she gives them. She discovers piercing words moment to moment, and the effect is often thunderous.

Her trio of supportive friends, Malik (Michael Cooper Jr.), Sonny (Miles Gutierrez-Riley) and Milez (Justin Martin), are all sweet, funny and tight-knit — an essential part of a relatable YA movie. 

Mike Epps plays an amusing radio guy named DJ Hype, who takes Bri to task for her hit song, and the events it unleashes in the community. 

Bri's (Jamila C. Gray) best pals are Malik (Michael Cooper, Jr.), Milez (Justin Martin) and Sonny (Miles Gutierrez-Riley).
Bri’s (Jamila C. Gray) best pals are Malik (Michael Cooper Jr.), Milez (Justin Martin) and Sonny (Miles Gutierrez-Riley).
Courtesy of 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 in “The Little Mermaid” in that he offers Bri the world if she only sells her soul. Smith smartly plays him even-keeled. His intentions aren’t evil so much as savvy and realistic. He matter-of-factly tells her: “You know what white kids in the suburbs love? Music that scares their parents.”

The competing Pooh, meanwhile, has her troubles. She’s caught up in a gang war and sometimes inadvertently puts Bri in danger. But she wants Bri to be true to who she is. Randolph radiates warmth and humor in the role of Pooh, as she guides her niece and, sometimes, exposes personal failings.

Lathan, who has had a long and fruitful career as an actress in TV shows like “The Affair,” does well in her first go as a director. She has just enough visual flair so as to not overwhelm the rich characters and vibrant place.

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

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