Praise This Review: Chloe Bailey and Anjelika Washington Charm as Cousins Competing in Song
In the pleasantly amusing “Praise This,” Chloe Bailey is the self professed nonreligious Sam, a musical artist in the making who finds her niche in Atlanta’s competitive gospel youth choir scene. Director Tina Gordon crafts a musical that’s carried through by a charming cast and highly entertaining ensemble performances. “Praise This” adds a mostly delightful entry to the genre, even if it doesn’t offer a unique take. More successfully it acts as a winning introductory calling card to the acting and musical talents of its rising star, the slightly-older sister of upcoming “The Little Mermaid” actor Halle Bailey and one-half of the sibling R&B duo Chloe x Halle.
The story starts with Sam forced to leave Los Angeles by her dad because of some rebellious behavior. He entrusts her care to her aunt and uncle (Kendrick Cross and Janora McDuffie), but the person who takes full charge of Sam’s new life in Atlanta is her cousin Jess (Anjelika Washington). Immediately calling her a sister-cousin and introducing Sam to her life, friends and choir practice, Jess is the type of relative most people try to avoid, driven away by their too boisterous enthusiasm. Ever the smart person, it doesn’t take long for Sam to realize that joining Jess’ praise team in the lead-up to a national championship competition might be her way out of Atlanta and into a successful musical career. And so an odd-couple friendship is born.
Between practice and competitions, the film reveals its many supporting characters. There are the other singers on the choir team, various rivals and members of the church the choir belongs to. There are even a few people in the audience highlighted fleetingly. Almost all of these characters are thinly drawn and closer to caricature, yet most have a clearly defining trait or deliver a humorous moment or two that make it easy to forgive how thinly they are drawn.
More importantly, nearly everyone in the cast contributes to the musical numbers, whether on the stage with rhythmic singing or on the sidelines with jocular asides. There’s an exciting energy to these sequences that brings the audience along as if in a live show and not watching the proceedings on a screen. Any time there’s a lull or a dull talky scene, Gordon supplies a musical interlude to infuse the film with the necessary high to carry it through to the next number. One standout is a scene set in a nightclub in which Sam is tasked with turning a medley of songs spiritual — or as Jess says “flip it to the lord.”
Any church-set film must have some sermons. That’s the rule, and “Praise This” abides. While secular audiences might find some of the church sermonizing tiresome, the message are so nonjudgmental and sex-positive that they hardly feel religious. These characters’ mantra seems to be “live and let live.” That makes it all go down easy. In fact, there’s a surprisingly lustfull note to most of the proceedings. The humor too is full of sexual innuendos, and every character is knowingly drawn as a healthy sexual being. The biggest sin here is hypocrisy, while casual weed use and inclusivity are celebrated. What’s not to like?
Bailey makes for a promising leading actor. While her singing skills are evident here, the film doesn’t give her ample space to showcase her dramatic chops. In the comedy department, she plays the straight woman to Washington’s character. As the ever ebullient Jess, Washington charms. Her character teeters on the edge of earnestness and gratingness, yet somehow she makes it sing. Together, Bailey and Washington have an easy and evident rapport. As a modern and tattooed pastor, Tristan Mack Wilds adds a dash of allure to the sermonizing that’s welcome. In smaller roles as an ersatz Greek chorus commenting on the proceedings, Cocoa Brown and Vanessa Fraction are a hilarious duo, lively and full of shade. But more than that, their characters hint at the community that grows in churches.
Yet not all characters are given room. The strained relationship between Sam and her father is introduced early on and then immediately forgotten. He finally reappears late in the proceedings, as if the filmmakers suddenly remembered the character and hastily tried adding him to the ending. The tension between them is sketched in the broadest terms without any specific details. Also broad is most of the humor, though the cast’s enthusiasm smoothes that over.
Gordon presides over the film with a gentle unobstructive touch, allowing the cast and their musical talent to take the spotlight. “Praise This” is light, familiar entertainment that offers a nice distraction for a couple of hours. Nothing more, nothing less.
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