Lathan’s Directorial Debut Is Engaging Coming-Of-Age Tale

Dec 17, 2022

Coming of age tales have always drawn an audience. Be they young or older, there is something one can relate to within narratives about discovering oneself and growing up. In On the Come Up, Sanaa Lathan’s directorial debut, a young rapper tries to prove herself in a world faced with various obstacles. The film, which hits certain and predictable story beats, thrives on a strong central performance and a genuine sincerity that is present throughout the lead character’s journey.

On the Come Up follows Brianna “Bri” Jackson (Jamila Gray), a 16-year-old rapper who is trying to make a career for herself in music. With her Aunt Pooh (Da’Vine Joy Randolph) as manager and biggest supporter, Bri attends underground rap battles to make a name for herself. At home, however, she faces a potential eviction after her mother, Jay (Sanaa Lathan), a recovering addict, loses her job. Bri faces an uphill battle as she attempts to make it big and live up to her father’s hip-hop legacy and community influence. After Supreme (Method Man), a local music producer, takes interest in Bri’s talent, she must contend with the demands of the music industry, her home life, and identity.

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Da’Vine Joy Randolph and Jamila Gray in On the Come Up

On the Come Up doesn’t reinvent the wheel, but it still offers a touching, heartfelt coming-of-age narrative that is organic rather than contrived. Bri sees firsthand how people’s perceptions can affect and shape one’s environment. She has to not only prove that she is a worthy rapper who should be taken seriously, but she has to step out of her late father’s shadow and sidestep the labels that have been forced upon her family. It’s not an easy journey and there are a lot of ups and downs and teachable moments, but On the Come Up handles its main story with grace and a lot of heart at its core.

The film is elevated by Jamila Gray’s heartfelt performance as Bri. She showcases her character’s hard exterior, but remains vulnerable and open, if stubborn, at every turn. Bri is trying to understand herself better and do right by her family — as they are under financial duress — at the same time, and Gray explores Bri’s layered emotions in a grounded performance. Da’Vine Joy Randolph also gives a great performance as Bri’s aunt, who sees the talent in her niece and encourages her despite not always being on the same page regarding her future. Method Man is suave and charismatic as Supreme, who represents the polished, successful life Bri could live if she is willing to give up parts of herself to do it.

Jamila Gray in On the Come Up

To that end, On the Come Up excels when showcasing how difficult it can be to stay true to oneself when money is on the line, and how easy it can be to make it in an industry that wants people to fit into certain roles. The film also tackles legacy, the additional hurdles Bri must overcome as a young Black woman trying to make it, and how empowering it can be to fully step into one’s identity and embrace that which makes the character who she is. Lathan’s film — from a screenplay by Kay Oyegun, who is working from the novel by Angie Thomas — doesn’t completely avoid the predictable tropes of a coming-of-age tale, but it isn’t any weaker because of it, either.

On the Come Up embraces the usual trappings of the genre while also standing on its own merits, offering the audience an engaging, entertaining, and well-paced story that will have one rooting for Bri’s success. The film’s finale is earned, heart-pounding, and emotional, especially after everything Bri goes through, fully embracing who she is and her journey. The film might travel a known path, but it’s also willing to do a few things differently on the way, providing viewers with a genuine, thoughtful, confident, and heartwarming story and character dynamics that work on many levels.

On the Come Up released in select theaters on September 23, and the film is available to stream on Paramount+. It is 115 minutes long and is rated for strong language, sexual references, thematic elements, some violence and drug material.

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