Reviewed by: Jennie Kermode

"Starr is good in the central role, demonstrating the standoffishness that can be a product of living in a prejudiced environment or growing up smarter than one's peers, yet never seeming cold."

The projects don't look so bad from a distance. As the camera gently swoops down towards them on a sunny day, their rich red sandstone cladding contrasts beautifully with the blue sky and the lush green of the trees that surround them. Their windows gleam and one can see how their original architect might have thought they would inspire those living within. Inside, though, the sheer concentration of human life betokens a very different reality. Kalani (Joi Starr) lives in a small flat, sharing a room with her wayward 13-year-old sister. Her hardworking mother comes and goes, expecting her to do the job of parenting and alternately condemning and missing the girls' older brother, who deals drugs to supplement their income. Caught up in the demands of family life, friends who want her to socialise more and boys who are only interested in sex (and that mostly for the bragging rights), Kalani really has to struggle to make time for studying, but she's determined to do a god job. It's her route out of there.

Coming from a background like this in the US, there's a 30% chance that one won't even finish high school, but Kalani has already secured a scholarship that lets her attend an exclusive private school. Being the only black girl there means she has to deal with racism in the classroom on top of everything else but at least she has the support of a college counsellor (Danny Glover) who believes that she has what it takes to get to the very top. She wants to become a lawyer and perhaps, on day, a judge. She has her sights set on Yale. The trouble is, it will take not only academic brilliance but also courage and a degree of ruthlessness in order to get there.

There's nothing especially new about Kalani's story but that's part of the point. Kids like her have been battling against the same barriers for decades. Being realistic, er counsellor agrees with her that it's unfair but points out that if she really wants the prize then she is going to have to work three times as hard as a middle class white girl simply because there is no other way to attain it. Meanwhile, she has to deal with constant micro-aggression around the idea that she's leaving her community behind, taking advantage of her good fortune in being intelligent and swanning off to join a more comfortable part of society rather than helping friends and family to deal with their problems. There are a lot of films out there about kids growing up and learning that they need to think of others. There are relatively few about kids learning that sometimes one does have to put oneself first, and learning to set boundaries around that.

Starr is good in the central role, demonstrating the standoffishness that can be a product of living in a prejudiced environment or growing up smarter than one's peers, yet never seeming cold. The love she has for her sister is clear, even when it's complicated by despair. All around her are the kind of problems that make middle class people demand action: young men who don''t think their girlfriends have a right to say no, a guy whose idea of contraception is dumping his girlfriends when they reach the age of menarche, all sorts of people who solve their problems with violence, petty theft, careless drinking, domestic abuse and all the rest of it, but despite her strong sense of justice Kalani has to recognise that she can't take responsibility for solving all this - at least not until she's acquired the education that could let her really make a difference.

The film is geared to a teenage audience and adult viewers may find it too sentimental in places. There's a particularly sugary final song which overwhelms much more impressive contributions from the actors - director Robert Rippberger would have done well to trust them more. Nevertheless, it sends a strong message to young people who could really benefit from it, and it does so without being preachy or condemning characters whose priorities differ from its heroine's. Lead screenwriter Sha-Risse Smith is from Harlem herself and provides an insider's perspective that tells it like it is without sensationalism.

There are any number of films out there about young people who prioritise having a good time. Strive takes the kind of character usually seen as the boring one and makes her into somebody whose quiet strength viewers of any age can appreciate.

Reviewed on: 15 Jun 2019
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Strive packshot
A teenager from the projects in Harlem aims to get into Yale, but must push against the world holding her back

Director: Robert Rippberger

Writer: Sha-Risse Smith, Piper Dellums

Starring: Joi Starr, Danny Glover, Shaylin Becton, Ricky Flowers Jr

Year: 2019

Runtime: 82 minutes

Country: US


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