“We’re selling fantasy here, and suicide ain’t sexy.”
Movies like this just don’t get made anymore. Beyond the Lights borrows from its own title and elevates its conventional and formulaic story to exceed all expectations. This is our generation’s version of the ’92 film The Bodyguard. The two could be twins, but this iteration is able to find its own niche through perfect pacing, constant raising of the stakes, and two powerful lead performances. If you like drama and romance sprinkled with a few good laughs, this is the movie for you. Beyond the Lights is one of the best films released this year. Trust me, I never thought I’d say that about this movie. Go see it before it leaves theaters.
The story leads off with a short but crucial scene that is the blueprint for the rest of the film. Macy Jean (Minnie Driver) is the single mother to her biracial daughter Noni (portrayed as a child by India Jean-Jacques). Noni soulfully sings Nina Simone’s classic Blackbird, a song which inspires the entire arc of the film, and proudly gets second place at a talent contest. Yet that’s not good enough for Mom, who throws the trophy in the dumpster. It’s first place or bust for a mother who clearly loves her child but also wants to gain as much from her daughter’s talent as possible. Modern cinema rarely sets up the story as well as this does.
Noni (now Gugu Mbatha-Raw) is a young woman, sexualized through her look, dress and dance moves in the vein of most contemporary pop icons. She longs to express herself as an artist but instead sings pre-written anthems and hooks in rap songs. The mounting pressure of fame is too much. Noni drinks, attempts to jump from her balcony, and is caught by the iron grip of Police Officer Kaz Nicol (Nate Parker). Her eyes remain closed, hoping to still fall until he reassuringly says, “Hey, hey, look at me. I see you. I see you. I see you.” Parker and Mbatha-Raw stare into the depths of one another’s pooling eyes. Their romance has been sparked.
Kaz is pressured to stay away from Noni to salvage his dreams of a future career in politics. Noni is told to stay away from Kaz and focus on her performance at the BET Awards, which must go well to ensure her debut album’s release after her bad-for-publicity suicide attempt. The stakes are constantly present and always growing, driving the story along like a pace car. Not since last year’s The Spectacular Now has there been a love story about such a complimentary romantic young duo, each sporting their own unique flaws and qualities. They’re classic Romeo and Juliet star-crossed lovers, each wholly in love with the other but uncertain of what to do and wary of what the end result might be. Yes, some of the scenes are corny and congruent with other films. The true miracle is how it takes those interchangeable parts and pieces them together in an entirely unique way. Every single scene, every single token line of dialogue yearning for remembrance, it’s all earned.
Written and directed by Gina Prince-Bythewood (you’ve probably seen her film Love & Basketball before), she provides an inside look on celebrity culture with two leads of color in an industry that’s sorely lacking those roles both onscreen and behind the camera. It takes a selfless auteur to make a movie like this and Prince-Bythewood never intervenes to the point that it’s overpowering. Great filmmakers are the ones who plan so much ahead of time that all they have to do is steer the ship. She admirably does so. And how can you get past these two lead actors. Nate Parker is a rare talent, and if he’s able to develop more emotional depth with movement and dialogue rather than his heavy use of brooding temper, he could be a young Sidney Poitier. The guy has serious skill. As for Mbatha-Raw, we have our next superstar. She was arresting in Belle and even stole a few scenes in Larry Crowne. But as Noni they could not have chosen a better fit. She’s stunningly gorgeous and a ringer for the late Aaliyah, and brings a bevy of emotional depth and weight to a pretty standard character. Mark my words…Mbatha-Raw will soon be a household name. She’s a burgeoning, rare artist.
At one point a character says, “And the cop here thinks he’s the bodyguard.” If that’s not a purposeful callback I don’t know what is. The main problem with most films, like The Bodyguard, is that they get lost in between the 2nd and 3rd acts. The story tries to do too much or too little, never finding the perfect balance. Beyond the Lights does. The film is transformative, of its narrative approach and the evolution of the characters we come to know. In a rich year for cinema, both independent and wide release, this film, somehow, rests in the upper echelon. It gets you to laugh. It gives you the chills. It adamantly makes you care. Beyond the Lights is a near lost breed in filmmaking. One that takes a simple story and elevates it into something magical. I can’t imagine anyone wouldn’t enjoy it, and that universality is what makes it truly special.
“I need you. You need me.”
Rating: 4.5 out of 5