52 Films By Women: The Astonishing Integrity of Gina Prince-Bythewood's 'Beyond the Lights'
I can give you a basic outline of Beyond the Lights and you think you’ll know the movie. Noni, a pop star with an overbearing mom-ager tries to commit suicide and is saved by a cop moonlighting as a security guard, Kaz. The cop and the singer begin a relationship hampered by her career and his desire to avoid the trappings of fame.
But writer and director Gina Prince-Bythewood and stars Gugu Mbatha-Raw and Nate Parker take that cliched, stereotypical story and give the plot and characters more respect and integrity than most romances are willing to risk. Kaz isn’t just a conservative cop who is naive and unfamiliar with the world of wealth and fame, he’s a life-long LA resident who got his degree in political science and intends to pursue a career in politics and is using law enforcement as a spring board. He’s conscious of image and the communities he needs to appeal to, and how his sudden fame as the man who saved Noni from an “accident” plays into that. Noni isn’t just a little girl swept up in a fame machine designed to exploit her physical appearance, she actively wants a career as a singer and songwriter but the focus seems to have gone awry on her journey and she doesn’t know how to right the ship.
One of the things that I appreciated is that Noni’s understanding of her own unhappiness unfolds through the movie. Even though it starts with her ready to push herself off a balcony, she doesn’t do a 180 when she’s saved. At first she tries to just go back to her normal life like nothing is wrong. It’s only as time goes on that she starts to obviously manifest her unhappiness and understand it herself. Kaz is a catalyst for this, as he saw her at that one brutally raw moment and won’t be as easily placated as the people around her who are more invested in maintaining the facade, but Noni herself is the one who starts demanding changes. The suicide attempt isn’t some moment where everything becomes clear to Noni, it’s an impulsive expression of feelings she’s been trying to suppress and even once she’s pulled out of that moment it takes her time and effort to unpack those feelings. It made her emotional journey more frustrating at times, but also far more realistic. Gugu Mbatha-Raw plays Noni beautifully through the whole film, clearly delineating the facade Noni puts up for her work from the young woman underneath who’s still trying to figure out what she wants and if she can have it. Prince-Bythewood’s script gives Mbatha-Raw the room to slowly explore and grow within Noni’s understanding of her life and what she wants to change about it. Nothing happens quickly, all the changes are earned.
Kaz also is given the space to be a real person with his own ambitions, desires, and flaws. Even as he gets to know Noni, he doesn’t voice any objections to her work or the hyper-sexual outfits she wears for it. He pulls back when he realizes she may be involved with a collaborator, but Noni pursues him as much as he is drawn to her. The one time he does lash out at her about her career it’s when he’s hurt, and thinks she’s leaving him. He’s not perfect, but the ways that he is flawed, and the mistakes he makes in their budding romance, are far more nuanced and considered than most male leads in romances.
And the chemistry between Mbatha-Raw and Parker? Whew.
The biggest criticism I have of the film is that Minnie Driver’s character, Noni’s mother Macy, is underdeveloped. It’s clear that she’s been a driving force in Noni’s life from the time she was a child, telling her daughter to throw a second place trophy to the ground because it’s worthless if it’s not first. But the motherly affection that she seems to be drawing on later in the film is not shown. We’re told an anecdote about her as a teenaged single mother, but her mannerisms with her daughter are coldly professional. Even after seeing her almost fall to her death, Macy’s concern is spinning the incident so it won’t damage Noni’s album release. Macy makes for a good manager, but her credentials as a mother are pretty thin. An emotional moment of hers towards the end of the movie feels more doesn’t feel as earned as some of the others in the film, though Driver plays it well.
Beyond the Lights is a romance that transcends the genre on the basis of excellent performances, and a strong script with equally strong and confident direction. None of the characters are underestimated, all of them are given room to express themselves, and while the story may be familiar the way it plays out feels fresh and inviting. Gina Prince-Bythewood demonstrates an incredible respect and understanding of her characters here, and it’s a joy to watch.
You can rent Beyond The Lights on Amazon.