Family Movie Review: Beyond the Lights (PG-13)


A comparison with “Titanic” isn’t necessarily a bad thing; that film benefited greatly from the fantastic performances by Kate Winslet and Leonardo DiCaprio, even if the format of boy-saves-girl-from-herself felt somewhat marginalizing of the female experience. Nevertheless, that structure is recreated here, even as director and writer Gina Prince-Bythewood tries to do so much more: chip away at the stereotype of stage mothers, take record executives to task for selling destructive fantasies, critique the United States political system for chasing success instead of progress. Every different subplot gets a few good points in (and Minnie Driver really tears into her role as an overbearing single mother desperate to make her daughter a star), but overall the film collapses under its own weight. There is too much happening here to make any one plot utterly compelling, so they all suffer.

The film begins in 1998, with young, single mother Macy Jean (Driver) driving through a shady South London neighborhood with her daughter, Noni (played as a child India Jean-Jacques and then by Mbatha-Raw, of “Belle”), looking for a salon: “I don’t know what the bloody hell to do with her hair,” Macy tells the hairdresser, and they’re on their way to a talent show, and Noni needs to look great. So the hairdresser helps, and Noni does look pretty, and then she sings a simmering, devastating rendition of Nina Simone’s “Blackbird” … only to lose to a girl tap-dancing in a sailor outfit. Macy forces her to throw the second-place award away: “You want to be a runner-up, or you want to be a winner?” she asks her daughter, and it’s telling that Noni doesn’t really answer. Macy has already figured out her life for her, and no amount of fighting back can change that.

Something like a decade later, Macy’s control is essentially complete: She’s managed Noni into a breathtakingly beautiful, fantastically underdressed pop star, winning Billboard music awards for music videos where she writhes around in black latex and licks her fingers while letting a rapper, fake boyfriend Kid Culprit (Richard Colson Baker, a real rapper who goes by the stage name Machine Gun Kelly), hump her. All of her outfits feature her in chains and collars (beautifully designed, but constricting nonetheless), and she doesn’t have any friends. No wonder that after her win, she tries to throw herself over her hotel balcony—only to be pulled up by handsome cop Kaz (Nate Parker, of “Non-Stop”), who tells her exactly what she needs to here: “I see you.”

But he also lies for her, telling the press that she drunkenly tripped and fell, not that she tried to kill herself. It’s a lie that leads into a romantic relationship between them, but no one is rooting for it: Macy is convinced Kaz will eventually sell his story to the tabloids; Kid Culprit is irritated that he’s seemingly being cuckolded, even though he and Noni were set up by their record label for press buzz; and Kaz’s father (Danny Glover), who has coached his son for a political career his entire life, tells him, “We both know this one ain’t first lady material.” Nevertheless, Noni is drawn to Kaz’s groundedness and he’s drawn to her impulsiveness; they eat carbs together, he becomes her bodyguard, and soon he’s seeing every way in which she’s manipulated: forced to disrobe at photo shoots, wear fake breasts every moment of the day, and unable to sing any of her own songs because the record label forbids it.

“We’re selling fantasy here, and suicide isn’t sexy,” says the label executive who looks at she and her mother like products who have become liabilities. “She doesn’t change the conversation, I will personally drop her from the label.” But does Noni even want the deal anymore? Or does she want Kaz?

The choice isn’t that simple, of course, and the film is constantly throwing obstacles in the couple’s way to see whether they sink or swim. But what becomes frustrating is how often the issues are coming from Noni’s corner, even though the film sets up her and Kaz like they’re in superficially-different-but-actually-similar situations: they’ve both been coached by their parents for public careers they don’t necessarily want, and they’re unsure of how to fight back against that. Yet about halfway through, the film stops showing all the ways Kaz has been manipulated by his father and piles on the Noni-and-Macy-blame bandwagon; it makes for an uneven balance, and furthers the he’s-saving-her angle. “My whole life is in someone else’s hands,” Noni complains, but if the film had done more to show how Kaz is in the same situation, the storylines would have been more equitable—and the romance more believable.

All the more frustrating because everyone here is doing a bang-up job. Parker is quietly confident, and he gives a nice humanity to what could have been a bland character. Driver has one of her best roles in years as Macy, so focused on her daughter’s success that she can’t see her suffering; it’s to Driver’s credit, though, that the character doesn’t become a run-of-the-mill mommy monster. She’s more relatable than that, and you’ll pity her even while being disgusted by the lengths to which she’ll go to ensure her daughter’s popularity. Mbatha-Raw is the breakout here, though, and as her pop-star veneer falls away (especially during a trip Noni and Kaz take to Mexico together), it’s impossible to not fall for the girl underneath who knows she’s been manipulated and is finally ready to stop it.

If only “Beyond the Lights” could have balanced itself better. Despite its solid cast and justified, if unsurprising, points about the superficiality and falseness of the music industry, the film falls into the same gendered trap as so many other movie romances. What a disappointment.

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