CityArts: The Personal is Poetic

Written by Armond White on . Posted in Arts & Film, Arts Our Town, Arts Our Town Downtown, Arts West Side Spirit, Film, Our Town, Our Town Downtown, West Side Spirit.


‘Yelling to the Sky’ is a Notable Debut

Victoria Mahoney’s debut feature, Yelling to the Sky, updates the literature of writers like Gayl Jones, Alice Walker, Toni Cade Bambara, J. California Cooper and Nella Larsen, yet it isn’t at all literary. It is entirely cinematic, a presentation of emotion and social circumstance that communicates visually more than verbally. Mahoney started out as an actress, and her filmmaking is sensitive to showing. She emphasizes—through visual illustration and emotional rhythm—a young woman’s gradual understanding of her personal feelings. Here the personal is not only political, it’s also poetic.

Sweetness O’Hara (Zoe Kravitz) lives in a broken home with a mentally frail dark-skinned mother (Antonique Smith), a white, depressed father (Jason Clarke) and an older sister (Yolonda Ross) coping with her own adolescent bad decisions. Sweetness’ story reveals not merely a history of violence but a condition of violence that is physical and psychological, inflicted from outside and internally. Mahoney delves into the pain of light-skinned black women struggling to fit in. This territory has been exclusive to literature (marginalized in Imitation of Life). Before Obama, Sweetness’s identity would be called biracial, but Mahoney starts with a scene of social hostility basic to unspoken tensions in American communities.

How Mahoney achieves this shocking moment of cultural memory (and nightmare) demonstrates that the indie movement rarely ventures beyond politically correct sentiment. She begins with social taboo then burrows into its personal sources and internal effects. Most other indie filmmakers look for mainstream approval by pushing politically correct buttons; Mahoney’s existential cry risks complexity for a healing, not self-congratulatory truth. It’s an encouragingly odd movie—only a literary analogy describes its daring, its poetry. It should remind some of Lorca’s House of Bernardo Alba (particularly Eleo Pomare’s 1967 black ballet version as much as the original play). And moviegoers may recall Dito Montiel’s similarly poetic debut A Guide to Recognizing Your Saints, a movie where the social and personal were powerfully blended.

Several memorable scenes (a sisterly pietà, a quiet handball court fracas, a trio of girls sashaying) shame the heinous exploitation of Precious and the rank sentimentality of The Help. These experimental, impressionistic scenes knowingly combine rebellion with self-destruction, a caring sense of a girl’s difficult maturation and the ache of imperfect parenthood. I also applaud Mahoney’s tasty musical themes (including a haunting Joni Mitchell original and remake) and her casting of Kravitz (Lenny Kravitz and Lisa Bonet’s daughter), who has natural ease onscreen. Here, she unavoidably accesses Bonet’s sullen, unpredictable temperament, which, like it or not, is part of our cultural awareness—and part of the valuable insight Mahoney brings to the screen.

Follow Armond White on Twitter at 3xchair

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