Beyond the Lights

Posted on November 13, 2014 at 5:55 pm

Copyright 2104 Relativity Media
Copyright 2104 Relativity Media

“Beyond the Lights” is a welcome return to the grand traditions of movie romance, with sizzling chemistry between gorgeous, fabulously charismatic stars Gugu Mbatha-Raw and Nate Parker. And it also has some very astute insights about family, ambition, and the pressure put on young women, especially those in the performing arts, to present themselves as sexually provocative and available.

Minnie Driver plays Macy Jean, a ruthlessly ambitious stage mother who sees her talented young daughter, Noni, as her ticket out of poverty and powerlessness. We first see them at a singing competition when Noni is a little girl (India Jean-Jacques). Her performance of Nina Simone’s “Blackbird” gets her a trophy that her mother smashes to the ground because she did not come in first. Then Noni is grown up (Mbatha-Raw), singing and dancing in a steamy music video, featuring a successful rapper named Kid Culprit (Richard Colson Baker, aka Machine Gun Kelly). Macy Jean is pushing Noni hard to do whatever it takes to become a star, and she is on the brink of a breakthrough, with an upcoming television appearance that should launch her into superstardom.
But in the midst of all of this sound and fury, Noni feels lost.  The image her mother has created for her is so overpowering that she does not know who she is anymore.  She is a singer with a million-dollar voice, but she is also a person who feels that it belongs to someone else, that she is lost somewhere beneath the glitter and fakery.  Alone in her hotel room, she goes out the window and sits on the ledge, contemplating allowing herself to just fall off.

She is rescued by a cop assigned to her security detail.  His name is Kaz (Parker) and he grabs her hand and looks into her eyes.  He says “I see you.”  And she believes he does.

Of course, the incident is spun for the press.  “We’re selling fantasy here, and suicide ain’t sexy.”  Noni jokes about the risks of combining champagne and stilettos and poses with her handsome savior.  But Kaz did see Noni.  He saw her the way she wanted to be seen.  And she saw him, too.

Kaz has a demanding parent, too, a father (Danny Glover) who wants him to run for office, and knows that Noni is not first lady material.

Writer-director Gina Prince-Bythewood (“Love and Basketball”) keeps the love story glamorous but never soapy, through the subtle, moving performances by Mbatha Raw and Parker, and a script that respects the characters, with thoughtful details and easy humor.  In the very beginning, Macy Jean is frantic because she does not know how to handle her biracial child’s hair.  Later, Noni is wearing a purple-streaked weave for her music video.  And when she begins to be happy again, she frees her hair as she finds her true voice.  Prince-Bythewood’s confidence in her own voice as much a pleasure of this film as the love story and the star power, which add up to the best date movie of the year.

Parents should know that this film includes very provocative sexual imagery and musical performances with very skimpy clothing, sexual references and situations, strong and crude language, attempted suicide, and tense family confrontations.

Family discussion:  What does it mean to “do small things in a great way?”  How did Noni and Kaz help each other? Why did being on the brink of great success was Noni in despair?  What can we do to protect girls from the overwhelming focus on appearance?

If you like this, try: “The Rose,” “The Bodyguard,” “Lady Sings the Blues,” “Dreamgirls,” “Love Me or Leave Me,” “Gypsy,” and “Mahogany”

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Date movie Drama Gender and Diversity Race and Diversity Romance