Wednesday, April 1, 2015

Beyond the Lights

Directed by Gina Prince-Bythewood.
2014. Rated PG-13, 116 minutes.
Gugu-Mbatha Raw
Nate Parker
Minnie Driver
Danny Glover
Machine Gun Kelly
Jordan Belfi
Hayley Marie Norman
Tom Wright
Jesse Woodrow

We first meet Noni as a little girl, then played by India Jean-Jacques, with an immense talent for singing. Her mom Macy (Driver) is furious that she places second in a talent show she obviously should have won. Mom even makes Noni throw away the trophy she won. Then the fast-forward button is hit and we meet Noni again, now played by Gugu Mbatha-Raw. She's in her early twenties and already a star. She's got a few hit songs under her belt and is on the verge of releasing her debut album. However, it all seems to be too much for her. She's literally ready to end it all by throwing herself off of her hotel room balcony. Luckily, Officer Nicol (Parker) steps in to save her. A romance between two people from entirely different worlds ensues.

Noni is the character at the center of all storms. It's pressure that star Mbatha-Raw handles exceedingly well. she exudes an innocence that is essential to making Noni a sympathetic figure. This is no easy task given that the first time we see her as an adult is performing in a music video wearing a barely-there bikini and spreading her legs for the camera. It's a shock to our system, this sudden and explicit expression of a woman announcing herself to us. Mbatha-Raw and director/writer Gina Prince-Bythewood make sure to quickly make it clear that our initial impression is incorrect by having Noni cast an advice-seeking look toward her mother who nods approval. The looks on the faces of both women perfectly sets up everything that is to follow between them. Mbatha-Raw does an outstanding job illustrating Noni's struggle to reach her dreams and not lose herself in the process. That struggle is personified by her mother. Minnie Driver gives a wonderful portrayal of the ultimate stage-mom. She truly believes money is the end that justifies all means. The battle of wills played out by her and her daughter provides us with compelling drama.

While the prosperous yet fragile relationship shared by Noni and Macy is the driving force of Beyond the Lights, it's framed by its affect on the romance of Noni and Officer Nicol. he is an interesting character in his own right. In fact, his relationship with his father (Glover) mirrors that of Noni and Macy. Granted, it's on a smaller scale, but a reflection, nonetheless. Nate Parke continues to show growth as an actor in the leading man role. He's been effortlessly likable in everything I've seen him in, but here he brings a believable weight to the part. His work is aided by the easy chemistry he shares with Mbatha-Raw. This makes their scenes together work. We truly feel like we're watching a couple that is obviously falling in love, but not always sure how to deal with each other and whether or not they should move forward. The tension between them always feels real because Officer Nicol has clear ideas on what Noni should be doing with her life even though she's still trying to figure it out and is unsure who to listen to. There is also tension between Officer Nicol and his dad. He's grooming his son to one day be president and encourages him to make better choices in women and and advises him of other things he shouldn't be getting involved in. A great juxtaposition arises from this. Everything the senior Nicol advises his son against is precisely what Macy wants her daughter to do. Yet, neither parent can claim to be heroic despite their best intentions.

Beyond the Lights is a very good movie. What keeps it from becoming great is that it never really tries to break free from the shackles of traditional romance. More than that, it allows this aspect to dominate the film. Watching Noni and Officer Nicol go through the ups and downs of a budding relationship is kind of fun, but easily predictable. We know precisely where those twists and turns are coming. The parent-child parts of the story are also predictable, but not nearly as much. With the futures of both our leads being aided and speculated on by a number of people and quite literally hanging in the balance, we have more moving parts to deal with. Sorting through the various messes that pop up because of this is much more satisfying than the part of the movie we figured out right from the beginning. In the end, it makes sure that it's a romance through and through even though it brings nothing new to that table. What it brings is a number of great performances from its cast and a story good enough to give it a high rewatchability factor.


  1. I love Gugu Mbatha-Raw, she's become one of my fave actress after seeing her in Belle and this one. Two very different performance that show her talent & versatility.

    1. Agreed. She's turned in two magnificent performances.

  2. This is in my watchlist as I've heard great things abut this as I want to see this because of Gugu who I loved in Belle.

    1. Do it. Of the two movies, I enjoyed this one more and think she gives the better performance here.

  3. Looking forward to watching the movie! I liked Gugu Mbatha-Raw in Belle, excited to watch her performance in this.

    1. Same as in my reply above. I prefer her performance here to the one in Belle. Don't get me wrong, she was excellent, but I think she's better, here.