review//BEYOND THE LIGHTS

Grade: C

BEYOND THE LIGHTS
Directed by Gina Prince-Bythewood
Starring Gugu Mbatha-Raw, Nate Parker, Minnie Driver

Gina Prince-Bythewood's Love and Basketball has become somewhat of a cult hit over the years. It's a raw telling of a romantic story that defies genre stereotypes. In her newest film, the pop music drama Beyond the Lights, Prince-Bythewood has created a story with hints of originality and star-making performances, but overshadowed by clich├ęs.

The film begins as a seemingly innocent tale of a talented little girl and a fame-starved stage mother bent on finding perfection no matter what. Noni, a biracial girl from the London suburbs, has a natural musical talent and surprisingly empowered taste in music. After singing a likeable rendition of Nina Simone's "Blackbird" at an area talent show and coming in second place, her mother, the irrational Macy, forces her to destroy the trophy with the intentions of never settling for second best. Fast forward to today and Noni is an underdressed vixen making appearances in hit hip-hop videos and leaving her natural talents at the door with her natural beauty in favor of quick fame and an overproduced look. On the night of winning her first Billboard award, Noni attempts to jump from her hotel balcony only to be saved by a handsome police officer who happens to be in the right place at the right time. Just like it sounds, the film delves into a fight for fame and love with Noni trying to get everything she wants, knowing that's an impossible endeavor.

Newcomer Gugu Mbatha-Raw takes a strong approach to the adult Noni. If you didn't know any better, you'd think they hired a real hip-hop star as Noni instead of a classically trained actress. She was already building awards buzz for her work in Belle earlier this year. Noni could be her coming out role as a serious film and box office contender. Minnie Driver delivers a great performance as Noni's mom. She's the right mix of evil and endearing that makes her sly decisions that much more disgusting. There's a scene between the two that is so perfectly over-the-top, it'll make the rounds at the awards shows should either be nominated. Sadly, this is where the great performances end. Nate Parker, as the hero cop Kaz, isn't necessarily terrible. In fact, it's the character of Kaz that is so overly-charming that he becomes super annoying. Noni tells him at one point to stop trying to be the hero all of the time. That is my sentiment as well. The other supporting players didn't really offer anything special to be regarded. This is Mbatha-Raw's movie and she keeps it the whole time.

There is only a small amount of things that separate Beyond the Lights from being a very well-produced Lifetime movie. The music is one of them. There are a few great music choices made throughout the early parts of the film and then, once we begin to hear Noni's original music, some honest moments of greatness appear. Prince-Bythewood has a very clear vision for the type of film she's trying to create and that seems to involve a story that meets criteria across several genres.

Noni's story of the rise and fall of fame and its price on a life is an interesting one. There are moments of great conviction in the piece, but overall it's hard to feel completely sorry for someone living out the dream. There's a message hidden in Beyond the Lights somewhere. Unfortunately, it doesn't seem to ever surface.

Rating: PG-13
Runtime: 116 minutes

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