Movie Review: Beyond the Lights

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A pop star on the edge of a breakdown finds romance with a police officer.

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Gina Prince-Bythewood, 2014

Noni (Gugu Mbatha-Raw) is a pop star on the rise. Her collaboration with her boyfriend Kid Culprit (Machine Gun Kelly) is selling well, and earns her an American Music Award. Behind the scenes, however, Noni is feeling the pressure. Her classic stage mother Macy Jean (Minnie Driver) keeps pressuring Noni into doing things she doesn’t like, and Noni feels increasingly isolated. When she attempts to jump off the balcony of her hotel room, she is saved by Kaz (Nate Parker), a police officer who serves as her security for the night. As she grows closer to Kaz, Noni becomes more defiant and erratic. Meanwhile, Kaz struggles with his own set of expectations.

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Beyond the Lights is a sweet but slight romantic drama. Director Gina Prince-Bythewood examines some interesting themes within the context of a traditional romantic narrative. The film is at its best when it’s addressing issues of bodily autonomy and the sexualisation of women. There’s a lot to unpack with regards to intersectional feminism and the commodification of Black women’s bodies. Noni’s agency is the most important issue in the film, but it takes a back seat to the lukewarm romance. There’s something lacking there – perhaps it’s due to Kaz’s somewhat patronising interest in saving Noni, or perhaps it’s the lack of a spark. There are some interesting concepts behind Kaz’s bid to get into politics, which never seems like his idea. He has to win the approval of his own father (Danny Glover, who is great, and fun to see again) and the Black pastors in his community, which is hard to do when he’s seeing Noni. But when they’re together, she outshines him easily.

The film does have a pair of stand-out performances. The central performance from Gugu Mbatha-Raw, whose vulnerability makes Noni incredibly human, is so powerful that she far eclipses Nate Parker in support. He’s just sort of…there, a satellite revolving around the incredible presence that Mbatha-Raw brings. Minnie Driver holds her own much better. She makes the complicated Macy Jean so much more than a simple two-dimensional antagonist. The mother-daughter relationship feels complex, painful, and real. The original music in the film doesn’t quite hold up. The final song, which should feel triumphant, is pretty weak. The two performances of Nina Simone’s Blackbird are the musical highlights. Sung a capella, they’re both incredibly captivating. India Jean-Jacques, the little girl who plays young Noni, is a delight, and the film could have benefited from more of her. The film is shot in a gauzy, warm light, and it looks lovely. The way that it lingers on Noni’s face as she works through complicated emotional moments and pulls out for the breakdowns is very effective, giving us glimpses of the main character from the outside and from within. Overall, it’s a good movie, but it lacks some ingredients that could have made it great.

Beyond the Lights on IMDb

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