Against the Grain (127M, USA) DIR by Elias Mael
An inner-city kid goes to college in hopes of becoming a neurosurgeon one day.
Award-winning screenwriter and former Laney Student, Elias G. Mael was tired of played-out Hollywood stories in which disadvantaged inner-city youth made it out of poverty by succeeding in sports or entertainment.
He wanted to tell a different story, and he has done that with his new film “Against the Grain.”
“Against the Grain,” which premiered to over 500 people at the Hollywood Black Film Festival last October, is the story of Isaiah Johnson – a young man struggling to differentiate between his life at home and his new life in college.
The film begins in West Oakland where Isaiah is preparing to say goodbye to his friends who aren’t going off to college. Mael has created a group of friends who portray a typical dynamic seen not only in underprivileged black youth, but also in friends of all races who part ways when some choose to go to college and others do not. This is one of the many ways anyone can relate to the film.
Isaiah has been accepted to UC Berkeley to study Neuroscience. When he arrives, there is culture shock. The dorms are no picnic, his roommate is from predominantly upper-class, white, Orange County, and Isaiah is taken aback when he realizes he was supposed to have read three chapters by the first day of class.
One small consolation is that there is a beautiful girl in class, Nicolette, who he feels he might be able to relate to.
Having a hard time adjusting to college life, Isaiah invites his friends to go with him to a frat party held off campus. At the party, the girl from class is there—with her boyfriend.
The girl, Nicolette, begins to flirt with Isaiah. However, a fight breaks out between Isaiah and Nicolette’s boyfriend and one Isaiah’s friends pulls out a gun. Isaiah and his friends flee the scene, but Isaiah ends up being arrested.
Isaiah is given a reduced sentence with the stipulation that he does community service and keeps his grades high. Life becomes increasingly challenging for Isaiah with his difficult classes, the added stress of his sick mother, and trying to tread lightly as he studies (and flirts) with Nicolette.
On top of all that, Isaiah is also struggling to stay out of trouble. Mael emphasizes the struggle Isaiah undergoes by depicting two completely different worlds in which he lives.
West Oakland is a world riddled with gun violence, drug deals, gangs, and poverty-stricken homes. UC Berkeley shows fancy buildings and richly dressed students.
When Isaiah visits Nicolette and her father in Palo Alto, you see an exorbitantly rich lifestyle, drastically different than that Isaiah is accustomed to.
Helping him discern between these two drastically different worlds, Isaiah’s father tells him: “You are who you hang with. You hang with guns, you’re liable to be one; you hang with winners, you’re going to win. “
Isaiah is torn, though. The challenges he is facing with school, family, and friends are overwhelming him. He confides in his mother: “It ain’t never fair. I feel like I’ve been struggling my whole life.”
Despite his struggles, Isaiah finds comfort in the reassurance of his parents and also in Nicolette. While the ending didn’t seem to match the tone of the rest of the movie, it was likeable.
Overall, the movie was enjoyable and despite having any direct parallels to my own life, I still found it relatable on a human level. The film clearly portrays the distancing and separation between once-good friends.
There was the idea of not belonging and being the outsider. There was also the feeling of losing the ones you love to something completely out of your control.
And there was the idea of life just not being fair.
“Against the Grain” recently ended its stint at the Oakland Film Festival. When it comes to town again, I strongly recommend you see it.
Mael, his cast, and crew have done an excellent job of telling a story of how an inner city youth can overcome life’s challenges with intelligence, love, and strength and not just the ability to excel in sports or entertainment. His film itself successfully goes “Against the Grain.”