Despite a handful of immediately upsetting sequences, DIY hip-hop musical Know How never coheres into a cathartic fictional account of its creators’ turbulent adolescence. Based on its five young stars’ real-life experiences as New York foster care wards, Know How presents its protagonists’ teenage years through the lens of personal traumas. But because director Juan Carlos Pineiro Escoriaza and his seven co-writers overemphasize drug use, bullying, and domestic violence in order to inevitably show characters overcoming adversity, the film only effectively underlines problems, rather than solutions.
The disparity between Know How‘s uplifting aims and its brutally sensational means is most apparent in two pseudo-empowering story lines featuring contrasting personalities: artistic Megan (Claribelle Pagan) and studious Addie (Niquana Clark). Megan’s narrative is generally more effective than Addie’s; scenes where Megan gets pushed around by aggressive teenage girls are way more involving than scenes where Addie, a sassy autodidact, aces her tests and then mocks a stuck-up classmate for being jealous of her success.
Worse still, Know How‘s stars are too nervous to be convincingly uplifting during the musical sequences. Extroverted Marie (Ebonee Simpson) and shy boyfriend Trey’s (Deshawn Brown) heavily Auto-Tuned duet lacks passion, while Clark’s performance is too skittish to pull off Addie’s rallying cry of “Everyone for themselves, we can never give in.”
Meanwhile, Megan sings, off key, about feeling persecuted while her character flashes back to scenes of sexual assault. There’s nothing emboldening about a musical that inadvertently trivializes serious problems with bad singing.