There’s a common misconception with romance that’s seen it get relegated to the background, to the stuff of films that make their moderate return at the box office and are immediately forgotten. It is seen to exist in a vacuum. The lives of the characters outside the relationship aren’t explored. They exist solely within the relationship, and that’s it. It can’t exist in tandem with character development, one must be totally absorbed by the relationship that themselves as a single entity is forgotten. It creates an environment of escapist fantasy, sure, but doesn’t exactly resonate.
But this isn’t what realist romance is. It’s why Richard Linklater’s Before films resonate so much. The characters are separate entities. They forge a connection with each other and converge in that regard, but they have personal struggles, other things going on in their lives separate to each other. It does not mean one person saving another, themselves being an entity incapable of making their own actions. No, it’s about finding understanding, strength, and connection to make a change in one’s life.
It’s absurd that in 2015 a romance like Beyond the Lights is considered daring and atypical filmmaking in this regard, that it has nearly no contemporaries. It has escapist fantasy (the film’s climax is a heart-stoppingly beautiful montage of an escape to a secluded beach house), but in equal measure are the personal journeys of its protagonists. Noni (Gugu Mbatha-Raw), who to the media constantly hounding her has everything she could possibly want, is micromanaged, scrutinised, and buried within an inch of her life under fake nails and hair extensions. Her disconnection with herself goes far back in time – in the first scene, she wins second place at a talent contest, only to have her mother (Minnie Driver) tell her to throw it in the bin. It’s a story that’s straight from the daily headlines. To everyone around her, she’s a way to make money, not a person, but a thing to be objectified. By contrast, Kaz (Nate Parker)’s struggles, his political aspirations driven by his father, are less hard-hitting. Noni is the focus of the story here, and Mbatha-Raw delivers a virtuoso performance that makes a simple act of removing hair extensions an extremely moving moment of rediscovery. By fate, as these things often go, they meet in a moment of absolute struggle, of deep exhaustion. One is there for the other, grabs onto their hand, but they pull themself up over the ledge. They feel an immediate, deep connection, but that gravitational pull towards one another is slow. They have their own lives to lead, battles to be won off their own bat. But it’s a wait, a gradual convergence, that makes that inevitable moment of intimacy even more resonant. By then, they’re fully-explored individuals, two people who find the strength in each other to rediscover themselves. It makes one of the best romances in years – fantastical, sad, triumphant, and above all else, real.