Beyond the Lights
by Hope Madden
Don’t let the Beyond the Lights trailer fool you. What looks like a by-the-numbers melodrama about selling your soul for success does follow a familiar trajectory, but it does a fine job with that journey.
Noni (Gugu Mbatha-Raw) teeters at the edge of superstardom: she’s just won a Billboard award for her rap duet with hip hop giant Kid Culprit (a wonderfully sketchy Richard Colson Baker – better known as Cleveland’s own Machine Gun Kelly – in his screen debut), and her first album, releasing in days, is poised to break records. But the troubled star is buckling under the pressures and compromises.
In comes Kaz (Nate Parker), or “Officer Hero” as Noni’s fans come to call him.
Yes, his grounded do-gooder character wants Noni to respect herself, and the big question is whether the pull of fame will tear them apart, which is a wildly predictable set up. But writer/director Gina Prince-Bythewood (Love & Basketball) knows what she’s doing. She certainly cobbles together a familiar frame – part Gypsy, part Glitter, part Mahogany – but somehow the final product feels, if not fresh, at least relevant.
Mbatha-Raw stands out in her second powerful performance this year, after her stunning turn in Belle. She never resorts to clichés. She’s able to craft a character with both an entirely believable public persona as well as a blossoming personality of her own. There’s not a false note in the performance.
Parker’s less effective – in fact, though he’s turned in worthy performances throughout his career, here he’s strangely wooden. Still, the two have some chemistry and Mbatha-Raw is so compelling that you’re hard press to take your eyes off her anyway.
Not that Prince-Bythewood doesn’t offer plenty of reasons to look away. Her camera misses no opportunity to draw attention to Parker’s striking physique.
Minnie Driver impresses as the stage mother, and Prince-Bythewood’s script offers plenty for her sink her teeth into. Threadbare plot aside, the writing is sharp and the direction is incisive. The opening scene confirms that this is not going to be a color by numbers affair, and the filmmaker peppers scenes with strong imagery as she gives her cast room to breathe and create memorable, dimensional characters.
The weakness of the central plot is problematic, and though the filmmaker takes advantage of the trope to draw attention to some gaping holes in our current culture, it still leaves a stale aftertaste. But if the storyline isn’t memorable, Mbatha-Raw is – and she’s worth the ticket price.