Friday, March 6, 2020

Beyond the Lights Shines Thanks To Nuance And Strong Performances

Looking over the filmography of the now-defunct film studio Relativity Media, one finds a catalogue primarily populated by disposable fare. Granted, unless you're a specialized arthouse distributor, it's doubtful any studios filmography will be ripe with only hits but Relativity's library is especially heavy on forgettable cinema. The outfits first few self-distributed titles, like Limitless, Mirror Mirror and Immortals, suggested that Relativity media wouldn't be afraid to make movies that could compete with much more established studios. That eventually gave way to a bunch of junk that primarily defined the studio's brief existence like Movie 43, Free Birds and 3 Days to Kill. But there were some gems to be found in there like Scott Cooper's 2013 film Out of the Furnace or the subject of this review, Beyond the Lights.

Released back in November 2014 and both written and directed by Gina Prince-bythewood, Beyond the Lights is a romantic drama that begins with new pop star sensation Noni Jean (Gugu Mbatha-Raw) seemingly being on top of the world. She's got a hit song, her first album is bound to be a phenomenon, everything in her life is taken care of by her mother, Macy Jean (Minnie Driver), it sure looks like everything is hunky-dory in her world. But looks can be exceedingly deceiving and Noni Jean is actually struggling internally with how little control she has over her music and everything else in her life. All of those woes lead to that fateful where she's preparing to jump off a hotel room balcony. This tense situation is handled by police officer Kaz Nicol (Nate Parker), who proceeds to talk her off the ledge and back into her hotel room.

Subsequently, Noni Jean, at the insistence of her mother and management team, play the incident off like Noni simply had too much to drink. But as Noni and Kaz begin to spend time with one another, it becomes clear that there's more going on here. Noni needs the chance to sing her own tune or else she'll always feel unfulfilled. This story is bolstered by a great many traits in Prince-bythewood's screenplay, including an insistence of layering a welcome layer of nuance into the proceedings. This is especially apparent in the complicated parent/child dynamics that inform the lives of both Noni and Kaz (the latter dealing with the wishes of his father played by Danny Glover). Though we view things through the lens of the characters occupying the "child" role in these dynamics, Beyond the Lights never settles for just making the parental figures caricatured villains.

This is especially impressive in regards to the Macy Jean character, who could have easily slipped into the broad Stage Mom caricature seen in so many other movies. However, Prince-bythewood incorporates a number of moments, including Macy Jean standing up for her daughter during a big boardroom meeting, that do indicate that she's capable of considering her own daughter's well-being. Macy Jean is shown to be somebody who can be selfish but she is also capable of selfless acts and even her most self-centered acts are grounded in a perpsective you can understand (though not endorse). The insightful way Prince-bythewood approaches this critical relationship is exemplified by how she refuses to wrap it up in a tidy manner.

By the end of Beyond the Lights, there hasn't been a permanent severing of the relationship between Noni Jean and her mom but neither is there an easy resolution. Instead, a more ambiguous conclusion is shown that makes it clear that the healing of this relationship will be a long-term process, if it even ever happens at all. That level of thoughtfulness is present all throughout Beyond the Lights and helps mightily in making the central romance as engaging it is. This is epsecially true of the way Noni and Kaz approach the former chaarcters struggle to establish her own identity beyond the one manufactured to sell albums. Beyond the Lights shows these two tackling that problem by acknolwedging what a messy process it would be as well as relying heavily on slow-paced intimate scenes that really shed a light on who Noni actually is.

This is especially true for a stretch of Beyond the Lights where the two lead characters are shown chilling out in a city in Mexico for a while. Isolated from the spotlight (one could say they've gone "beyond the lights" even), they're able to find out who Noni is through shopping, snuggling in bed and an especially moving scene involving karaoke. All of this character-based work is the kind of material Gugu Mbatha-Raw has excelled with in her other leading work in titles like Belle and Fast Color. No surprise, then, that she delivers sterling results in the role of Noni Jean, particularly in regards to depicting how the characters authentic self gradually emerges over the course of the story. What a shame Hollywood has refused to give Mbatha-Raw high-profile roles worthy of her talents in the five years since Beyond the Lights was released. Oh well, at least we have this remarkable directorial effort from Gina Prince-bythewood to remind us all of Mbatha-Raw's gifts as a performer as well as the value of having a movie be unafraid of exploring the finer nuances of its characters.

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