I’ve established pretty firmly in the past that romantic drama is not really my thing. Romantic comedy is a hard enough hill to climb, but romantic drama so easily drifts into the realm of Lifetime-esque treacle with an overwrought reliance on hackneyed gender and genre tropes.
Beyond The Lights begins its story with such a trope, and it’s easy to be worried by the premise that drives it. An on-the-rise British, gorgeous pop star, Noni (Gugu Mbatha-Raw), desperately alone despite the droves of people surrounding her, tries to throw herself off a balcony, only to be rescued by Kaz, a staggeringly handsome, dedicated police officer with political aspirations (Nate Parker). I know, OK? I know. It’s all too tempting to write the film off based on that opening alone, but almost immediately after that initial meet not-so-cute, things take off into very unexpected places.
The film is a romance, and a very good one, based in no small part on the absolutely terrific chemistry between the two leads. From the moment they’re first together on-screen, it feels like the film reel is going to start melting. Yet at the same time, there’s a depth and honesty and tenderness to that chemistry that takes it beyond a simple sexual attraction, and both Parker and Mbatha-Raw handle themselves with surprising sophistication. Gugu Mbatha-Raw is easily the more nuanced performance, running a gamut of emotions effortlessly, but Parker, whose character is built somewhat awkwardly on the strong-and-silent model, still handles himself with a grace and open-faced gravitas that serves the story well.
And if that was all there was, just a well-acted budding romance between two people from other ends of the world with a killer soundtrack, the film would have been alright. But it builds on those basic storylines (and, yes, cliches) and weaves itself into a complicated, subtle, and altogether lovely story that touches — however briefly — on far deeper and more important issues than simple romance. Beyond the Lights is about two people falling in love and struggling to find a place in their worlds for their love to prosper. Yet at times it’s also an intense study on race and gender, on the manipulative insidiousness of the music industry and how it treats its female stars, on the difficulty that young black people face when asked to carry the burden of their entire community’s hopes and dreams. It’s a story of showbiz moms and ambitious dads (hers played by Minnie Driver, his by Danny Glover), of how often women in pop music are heavily sexualized yet given no sense of agency, while also touching on the tendency of men to try to white-knight their way into “saving” women, when those women don’t need a hero, they need a partner. It’s by no mean an in-depth study of all of those things, but it’s just enough to allow to give the film a sense of realness and sharpness that is often absent from its contemporaries.
It’s a crazy combination of factors that deals with much more than romance, but it’s that romance that keeps all of those complex issues from boiling over into a confusing mess. Mbatha-Raw and Parker keep the film wonderfully grounded, but its the writing and directing of Gina Prince-Bythewood that’s the real star of the film. Prince-Bythewood is probably best known for the terrific and criminally underrated Love and Basketball, and she handles Beyond The Lights with a similar gentle deftness, letting the scenes with the two leads unfold organically. It’s those scenes of almost startling intimacy that set the film apart — there’s such elegant simplicity to just watching them tentatively begin to enjoy each other’s physical touch and space, to them charmingly conversing with each other using honest, real-feeling dialogue. It’s these things that elevate the film, allowing it to leave its rather pedestrian love story roots and becoming something that feels more personal and special.
Beyond The Lights takes a rather derivative, simplistic story and adds just enough freshness and intelligence (and music! The soundtrack is perfection) to make it rise to something far more interesting. It’s built on a thoroughly conventional premise that in less skilled hands would be cause for eye-rolling, but under the capable, confident direction of Gina Prince-Bythewood, it flexes a little more muscle and becomes a picture that is far stronger and more enjoyable than the average hideously cheesy Nicholas Sparks garbage that we normally suffer through. It’s a rare, welcome and much-needed departure from the genre, and was genuinely enjoyable to watch.