Distribution Wishlist, a new occasional feature, is where I highlight films that don’t yet have Australian distribution, and I hope will get picked up, that I’m anticipating.
What on the surface looked like yet another misty eyed romantic/showbiz melodrama, Beyond the Lights quickly captured my attention when it:
A. Was first added to the Toronto International Film Festival line up, and
B. Became one of the best reviewed films at the festival.
Starring up-and-comer Gugu Mbatha-Raw, who played the title role in this year’s surprise hit Belle (which I actually have sitting here to watch), Beyond the Lights is the story of Noni (Mbatha-Raw), the new ‘next big thing’ in pop music (doesn’t there always seem to be a neverending line of those?) who is trapped by the image imposed by both her record label and her classic pushy stage mum/’mumager’ Macy Jean (Minnie Driver), feeling the pressure of her newfound fame. In a desperate moment she meets Kaz (Nate Parker), a young policeman who (as stated by the official plot summary) “works to help her find the courage to develop her own voice and break free to become the artist she was meant to be”.
Ok, stop that eye rolling that I know you’re doing. I know that it sounds familiar, I know that it sounds problematic. However, one of the reasons I can’t wait to see it is that it seems to be quite the opposite, transcending the well-worn, misogynistic “damsel in distress” formula. Add in the fact that Mbatha-Raw has already earned herself a surprise Gotham award nomination (which, if you talk to those who’ve seen it, doesn’t appear to be a surprise at all) and yep, I’m in. What usually keeps films like these from being released in Australia is that they’re believed to be “too American” to be successful here, that they exhibit too many dense cultural niches and differences that Australians can’t relate to. That might be so to an extent. It probably won’t set the world on fire, won’t become a $100 million smash, and won’t get much recognition outside small indie film awards like the Gothams, but if these reviews are anything to be believed, this is a film that has great performances and universal themes of stardom and the increasing treatment of people as commodities, which is a conversation that needs to be started.
Some review extracts…
“Bythewood has purposely taken on an almost impossible scenario and made it something special. On the surface, you should not care for Noni’s character or her goals. You should want Kaz, a true good guy, to run for the hills from her. Instead, the filmmaker uses the same skills she has to fashion a memorable romance in “Love & Basketball” here. You believe Kaz is smitten with the Noni behind the hip-hop façade. Granted, Bythewood benefits from some genuine chemistry between the two leads, but the romance succeeds because of her direction, not in spite of it.As a screenwriter, Bythewood is often brutally honest about her characters and their situations. There are many shades of grey in Noni, Kaz and the people in their lives. The bad guys are a façade (well, except for maybe Kid Culprit), and the film’s resolution finds Kaz coming to that exact realization. She also has much to add to the discussion about today’s media and the dicey road record labels are willing to take as they desperately try to succeed in a world where album sales continue to become almost irrelevant.”
“Both Mbatha-Raw and Parker are appealing, expressive actors, and writer-director Gina Prince-Bythewood (Love & Basketball) lets them breathe, filling in the boilerplate bones of the story with smartly nuanced commentary on race and fame and the relentless negotiations that a young woman—even one without a record deal—has to make in a world that expects her to be everything but herself.”
“Mbatha-Raw (last seen in Belle, based on the true story of a black woman growing up among white aristocracy in 18th-century England) is a captivating presence here, look-at-me sexy one moment and soberly vulnerable the next. But she never lets her character descend into raw neediness or histrionic self-loathing. There’s always something sturdy and earthbound about her fragility, as if she knows she doesn’t have to play the victim, even when she feels like one. Noni’s triumph doesn’t come all at once — it takes awhile for her to stop fighting her hair and find her voice — but her moment of epiphany strikes a resounding chord.”
“Yet when she gets it right, it’s hard to hold the film’s shortcomings against her. Gauzy fairy-tale elements aside, the pic tackles a number of tough issues with rather admirable directness: the default hyper-sexualization of female musicians, the entertainment industry’s disinterest in the mental health of its prime assets as long as the show goes on, and the way a genuine gesture of humanity can be subtly sullied the moment it becomes a media opportunity.”
“The showbiz melodrama isn’t an easy beast to wrangle, succumbing too easily to overwrought, facile statements about both human emotion and the entertainment industry. So even if Beyond The Lightsdid nothing greater than stick the landing of its preposterous-on-the-surface premise, it could be deemed a success. But writer-director Gina Prince-Bythewood (who mined similar territory in 2000’s enduringLove & Basketball) ups the level of difficulty, adding pronounced feminist and racial undertones to a story about two very pretty people falling into a very pretty relationship.”
“It also deals with the over-sexualization of female pop stars in a world craving flesh, and how Noni, having long been stripped of her identity and driven to suicide, is reinvigorated not by a ‘man’, but someone who acknowledges that she is suffocating and needs some help.”
Beyond the Lights opens in wide release in the US this week.