The film Young. Wild. Free. may be set in Los Angeles against a backdrop of struggle, but it digs deep. The script gives a fresh perspective, along with the vision of Thembi L. Banks, a Black woman director making her feature film debut. Sadly, the film's lead character Brandon’s very adult responsibilities will resonate with many.  Although he is a teenager, his family circumstances require him to be a father figure to his younger brother and sister as they all navigate living with a single mother who struggled with her mental health. When Brandon meets Cassidy, he finds relief from the pressure.

“I was just taken by this kind of love story that has so many layers, layers of what it means to be a single mother and what it means to live in America in poverty and have to do everything we can to make ends meet, [while] dealing with mental health at the same time,” shares Sanaa Lathan, who plays Brandon's mother Janice. “It is such a huge, huge subject within our world, and especially our community, and I think that we don’t talk about it as much as we should start talking about it. But aside from that, just, artfully, I love the characters and was taken by Thembi’s vision.”

Because Lathan grew up a latchkey kid as her parents, director Stan Lathan and dancer/actress Eleanor McCoy, worked to establish themselves professionally, she knows Brandon’s story mirrors that of many others. “It becomes the new normal. And we could go back into history, and we can talk about the legacy of slavery and the destruction of the Black family and see where it comes from,” she explains. “But the reality is that single mother households are more common, and the kids have to grow up real fast. Sometimes, as a result of not having a real childhood, it can create real mental pressures.”

Algee Smith, who is known for The New Edition StoryThe Hate U Give and Euphoria, loves how the film "beautifully portrays two Black teenagers in the hood [who are] on a journey that’s unexpected and how deeply it touches on mental health.”

“It was an important story to tell,” chimes in his co-star Sierra Capri (who played Monse in Netflix's On My Block). “I think mental health is a big issue that is often neglected and not addressed or talked about in minority households, specifically African American households.”

“I think Cassidy allows Brandon to escape,” continues Capri. “I think he finds joy and just the freedom in her having no boundaries, and her just being free. I think he's inspired by that. I think he wishes that he was a little bit like that from time to time and he was able to just not care about what anyone thinks or have any responsibilities.”

“He definitely finds freedom in her presence. He also finds safety. He finds a lot of confidence being with her in himself,” echoes Smith. “But I think, among many things, he finds a release which he hasn't had before, which I think is very intriguing to him [and] is why I believe he follows that journey.”

Lathan, who is coming off her own directorial feature debut with On the Come-Up and the uber-successful Peacock limited series The Best Man: The Final Chapters, is also an executive producer of the film. “You get to a certain point [in the business] when your name becomes something, and you can lend your name to something that helps get it made,” she reflects. 

Joining forces with Macro, specifically Charles King and James Lopez, whom she has worked with “in different capacities over the years” to make this film, is extra special for Lathan, not just because it is “like a family affair,” but because of what more it means and brings.  

“One of the things that Thembi said at the premiere [at Sundance that] struck me is that [Young. Wild. Free.] is completely Black financed. And to hear that, I didn't even know that would be kind of emotional,” she shares. “Because here we are in 2023, and that is starting to happen. I mean it's a long time coming, but that's where we need to go in terms of seeing our voice in this industry.”

Ronda Racha Penrice is the author of Black American History For Dummies and editor of Cracking The Wire During Black Lives Matter.