The O'Haras don't talk much about what's wrong, but the members of this biracial Queens family — the central characters of Yelling to the Sky -- are bedeviled by alcoholism (dad), mental illness (mom) and adolescent defiance (the two daughters). Indeed actress-turned-director Victoria Mahoney barely explains her characters' circumstances, which makes the movie obliquely intriguing. But whenever the story comes into focus, it's revealed as fairly conventional.
At first, all four O'Haras get roughly equal attention, with an emphasis on Ola (Antonique Smith) and her younger sister, Sweetness (Zoe Kravitz, daughter of Lenny Kravitz and Lisa Bonet). The siblings stick together fiercely in the opening sequence, in which they're attacked by a gang of neighborhood bullies led by the formidable Latonya (Precious star Gabourey Sidibe). Ola doesn't let her pregnancy get in the way of clobbering her sister's tormentors.
Then the girls' mother (Yolonda Ross) vanishes without explanation, while their volatile, sometimes abusive dad (Jason Clarke, a featured player in the upcoming Zero Dark Thirty) "comes and goes." And Ola takes off with her boyfriend.
Left more or less alone, Sweetness talks herself into a gig with the working-class neighborhood's principal benefactor, a chivalrous drug dealer played by Tariq Trotter. Also, with the enticement of a joint, she turns two of Latonya's followers into her own posse. (They're played by Shareeka Epps and Sonequa Martin; the former appeared in Half Nelson, a more artful treatment of some of this movie's themes.) Sweetness even has a friendship of sorts with her high school's principal (Tim Blake Nelson); it's a relationship that leads to some of the movie's less convincing moments.
Gradually, the other O'Haras drift back home, Ola bringing an infant daughter. By this time, Sweetness has built herself a new life — one that will likely lead her to jail. Pulling her back from the edge is the concern of the script's third act, but there's not much drama to it.
To make her first feature, Mahoney has drawn on some elements of her own life. (Like Sweetness O'Hara, the writer-director is a biracial woman with an Irish surname.) That may be why the film's best moments are vignettes, mostly wordless, that convey mood more than narrative. The most tender is an after-the-storm scene in which Dad returns home from a brawl and Sweetness holds two mirrors in place so he can stitch the gash in the back of his head.
Shot with an overly restless handheld camera, Yelling to the Sky sometimes oversells simple domestic moments; one shot tracks across half-eaten sandwiches as if they were sacred relics. Yet Mahoney captures well the tribal antagonisms of the 'hood — which has a suburban appearance but an inner-city vibe — and stages action scenes with zest.
The movie includes several fistfights, a shooting and a drug bust, plus a shoplifting montage that crackles with teenage recklessness. Like the hip-hop tunes that punctuate the alt-pop and faux-classical soundtrack, these moments provide lively counterpoint.
They also foreshadow showdowns and comeuppances that never quite arrive. Perhaps the clearest evidence that Yelling to the Sky is based on Mahoney's own life is that the movie lets its most troubled characters off pretty easy.