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#TIFF22 Review: On the Come Up (Special Presentations)

September 15, 2022

By John Corrado

★½ (out of 4)

The 2022 Toronto International Film Festival runs from September 8th to 18th.

The directorial debut of actress Sanaa Lathan, On the Come Up is a frustratingly mediocre high school drama centred around an aspiring rapper. The film is based on a novel by Angie Thomas, who also wrote the bestselling novel The Hate U Give which got turned into a film in 2018, and Lathan’s film can’t live up to that previous adaptation. Despite having some energy during the rap scenes, On the Come Up is mostly a clichéd teen movie that bites off more than it can chew in terms of all the themes it tries to address.

Bri (Jamila Gray) is a 16-year-old girl who is trying to follow in the footsteps of her father, a rapper who was killed just before his big break. With her aunt (Da’Vine Joy Randolph) acting as her manager, she enters local battle rap competitions in her inner-city community of Garden Heights. With her mother (played by Lathan in a supporting role) struggling to make ends meet, she hopes to at least make enough cash to keep the lights on at home. While Bri chokes in her initial round, she eventually has a strong comeback that get her noticed by Supreme (Method Man), her father’s former manager, who promises her fame if she only follows his advice.

The film shoehorns in a variety of subplots, including an obligatory romance, while also charting the aftermath of an incident at Bri’s mostly white school where she got tackled by two male security guards for selling candy, which isn’t allowed on campus. Bri’s friends (Michael Cooper Jr. and Miles Gutierrez-Riley), who are worried she will become a “sellout” with her newfound recognition, gently encourage her to become a poster child for police brutality. But she gets in way over her head when her breakout track goes a little too far, and inadvertently causes a rift within her community.

The film does introduce some potentially interesting themes about what level of responsibility rappers have over their lyrics, as Bri starts to embrace some more stereotypical gangster rap tropes, and how suburban white kids embrace rap culture as a way to rebel against their parents. But these more nuanced ideas get buried under the weight of a story that tries to do too many things at once, and ultimately ends up feeling like an after school special. The writing is often overly simplistic, mixing a predictable story with metaphors that feel both insultingly obvious and manipulative (Bri gets tackled for selling a bag of Skittles, you know, to evoke the memory of Trayvon Martin).

The filmmaking feels amateurish with its flat visual aesthetic and uninspired storytelling choices (it’s being dumped on Paramount+ next week with no real publicity or push beyond the festival premiere, and it’s easy to see why), and the entire thing is so heavy-handed and so steeped in clichés that it becomes almost exhausting by the end. Da’Vine Joy Randolph is good though, and brings a much needed jolt of energy to this otherwise mostly inert film.

Public Screenings:

Thursday, September 8th – 9:30 PM at VISA Screening Room at the Princess of Wales

Friday, September 9th – 2:00 PM at TIFF Bell Lightbox 2

Thursday, September 15th – 2:45 PM at TIFF Bell Lightbox 1

Sunday, September 18th – 12:30 PM at TIFF Bell Lightbox 3

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