Adapted from The Hate U Give author Angie Thomas’ same-titled novel, “On the Come Up” unoriginally hits the beats of other rap battle movies like “8 Mile” and “Hustle & Flow,” but without either of those films’ lived-in feel. Everything in Lathan’s aesthetic vision looks and sounds artificial. The neighborhood of Garden Heights, though often given shoutouts, is rarely experienced and seen; Lathan and her cinematographer Eric Branco (“The Forty-Year-Old Version,” “Clemency”) rarely opt for an establishing shot. Instead, scenes begin with cars or buses driving into a static shot, leaving us confined within the boundaries of the lens rather than exploring what makes this neighborhood alive.
Lathan also opts to use Bri’s internal monologue, whereby she rhymes and counts out syllables, as the film’s narration for reasons that aren’t wholly clear. The voiceover adds little grounding to the character—apart from vocalizing her craft—and her internal lines are so basic, they might as well have been lifted from a Dr. Seuss book.
Despite her immense talent, Bri’s ascent toward stardom isn’t assured. At her white high school, which is supposedly striving for greater diversity, a security guard mistakes her for a drug dealer and body slams her to the ground. With Bri’s mother now laid off, their family struggles to make ends meet. Her first entry to the rap battle ring saw her running away once a rapper started clowning her deceased father. But when she finally wins a battle against the son of her father’s former manager and a successful music kingmaker, Supreme (Cliff “Method Man” Smith), her hotheaded aunt spoils her progress by threatening a rival gang with a gun in the rap battle’s parking lot. Bri’s precarious situation forces her to leave her Aunt Pooh’s protection for the riches promised by Supreme.
While “On the Come Up” wants to be about a girl falling into the pernicious clutches of the music business, even that feels hollow, especially when Bri records a hardcore diss track aimed at her local gang. Her friends Malik (the charming Michael Cooper Jr.) and Sonny (the catty Miles Gutierrez-Riley) see her as a sellout trying to get rich off a lifestyle she doesn’t rep. Bri sees no problem with playing the part if it’ll get her paid, mostly because she doesn’t see the dangerous consequences lurking within her actions.