Somewhere in Garden Heights, the fictional American city in the center of Come on, is an imposing mural by Lawless, one of the community’s biggest rappers. His daughter Bri Jackson (Jamila C. Gray), nicknamed Lil’ Law, visits this vibrant portrait regularly when she needs guidance. It’s a meditative exercise, a way to refocus. Bri is determined to become one of the biggest rappers to come out of the Heights, just like her father.
Come onSanaa Lathan’s cool, confident directorial debut, chronicles the 16-year-old’s journey to become a star and honor her late father’s legacy. The film, which premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival and will be released by Paramount+ on September 23, is based on Angie Thomas’s novel of the same name. Thomas, whose debut novel The hate you give also received the treatment on the big screen, has become something of a contemporary bard over the years for young black children, sensitively telling their coming-of-age stories. Her style may not be new (she works in a similar lexicon to authors like Sister Souljah), but they have grabbed the attention of the zeitgeist.
It comes down to
An assured directorial debut.
Location: Toronto International Film Festival (special presentations, TIFF Next Wave)
Publication date: Friday September 23 (Paramount+)
Form: Jamila C. Gray, Da’Vine Joy Randolph, Lil Yachty, Mike Epps, Miles Gutierrez-Riley,
Director: Sanaa Lathan
Screenwriter: Kay Oyegun
Rated PG-13, 1 hour 55 minutes
Lathan’s adaptation, with a screenplay by Kay Oyegun, captures the youthful edge and poetry of Thomas’ novel. Come on is a broad story about family, chasing your dreams and maintaining integrity that is sure to find fans among a younger audience. Even if it piles on the clichés and becomes a little too reliant on the required melodramatic beats, the film doesn’t lose heart.
There are few places where Bri feels peaceful. But standing in front of her father’s mural, fingering a gold necklace he gave her before his death, she can forget her laundry list of worries for a moment. Her mother Jay (played by Lathan), a recovering heroin addict, is months behind on rent and electricity. Her brother Trey (Titus Makin) tries to help, but his job at the pizzeria only pays that much. At school, Bri and her best friends Malik (Michael Cooper Jr.) and Sonny (Miles Gutierrez-Riley) are constantly watched by the guards, who find them more suspicious than the rest of the predominantly white students.
Rapping is another salve. Standing at The Ring, a local boxing center where aspiring and established rappers go to battle, Bri takes on a different personality. Her lyrics, written here by Rapsody, the rapper from North Carolina, show a smooth flow and verbal dexterity. Her performance also acts as an outlet for the pressure around her. When she enters the zone, she rises.
Come on starts with Bri trying to fight M-Dot (GaTa), a local rapper, but the young girl chokes before the match even starts. Thrown by M-Dot’s references to her mother’s heroin addiction and her father’s passing, Bri furiously rushes off the stage instead of spitting back. Closely followed by her manager and aunt, Pooh (an amazing Da’Vine Joy Randolph), who tries to remind Bri that failure is part of the process. She encourages her niece to never give up, one of the film’s recurring lessons.
Bri tries to keep that in mind and eventually returns to The Ring, but her return is bitter. One day after her fight with M-Dot, Bri is physically assaulted by one of the school’s security guards. Citing Bri’s history of “aggressive” behavior and selling contraband (candy) on school grounds, the school principals suspend her. The situation is made worse by the fact that Jay has lost her job at the church due to budget cuts. With her fragile reality trembling, Bri redoubles her rap dreams. She returns to the Ring and wins a fight against Milez (Michael Cooper Jr), a local favorite and the son of Lawless’s longtime manager Supreme (Method Man). The epic exchange redeems Bri and puts her on the map.
A taller profile makes Bri question Aunt Pooh’s ability to manage her. After a predicament — caused in part by Pooh’s long-standing feud with another gang — the young rapper is banned from The Ring, Bri drops her aunt and signs with Supreme. But that sweet deal has a sinister downside, especially since Supreme encourages the young rapper to write songs and take on a character suited to rap’s biggest consumers: suburban white kids.
As an adjustment, Come on does not have much narrative flexibility. Lathan is married to Thomas’ complex story, which doesn’t always translate seamlessly to the screen. There are parts of the movie—Bri’s parking lot fight with another female rapper, Sonny’s budding queer relationship, and even Bri’s own romantic ventures—that feel undercooked and touch on themes we’ll never return to. The film, which is nearly two hours in length, would need to be twice as long to fully develop these plot points, which rely on clichés and awkward expositions to fit into the story.
Come on finds its groove and feels most realized when it focuses on Bri’s fights, especially the touching finale, and her relationship with her mom and Pooh. Rapsody’s clever and expressive lyrics deepen our understanding of Bri, who struggles to define herself amid all the rumors about her family. Every rap Gray performs with a playful, engaging energy represents a step in Bri’s growth to become someone she’s proud of. That same tenderness flares up in Bri’s communions with her mother and Pooh, two women who approach and deal with their circumstances differently but share a commitment to Bri’s happiness and success: Their emotionally deft conversations wrap the young teen in warmth when they need it most. has and challenges her when she thinks she won’t, and helps Bri get closer to the person she wants to be.