(Gina Prince-Blythewood, 2014)
It took me a while to figure out exactly what it is about Beyond the Lights that feels so blessedly, brilliantly old-fashioned. It's not that it tells an old, classic love story wherein rising pop star Noni (Gugu Mbatha-Raw), isolated by the spotlight and struggling to express who she really is from behind the image created mainly by her driven, domineering mother (Minnie Driver) one night attempts suicide and is saved by LA cop Kaz (Nate Parker). He saves her by intensely telling her he "sees" her and a bond is formed that haltingly, touchingly, turns into romance. Yes, that comes straight out of The Bodyguard, as do a few of the scenes of backstage bitching and power struggles. The world portrayed her is scrupulously modern, too, with the importance of twitter and youtube hits made plot-points. But what is really old-fashioned is the sincerity of it all.
There is little new here, but it is all done with such emotional intensity that it feels fresh; these days romance is too frequently fodder for rom-coms and Nicholas Sparks weepies, but here it is the subject of the movie. This love story is about how love changes the people involved. Kaz, like Noni, is in the shadow of an ambitious parent (Danny Glover). In his case, his political ambitions have been stirred by the exposure the incident with Noni creates, but when the two lovers find one another, they also find themselves, even if the plot demands a few reversals and obstacles must be overcome.
The cast are excellent, which is a big part of why this never feels remotely like a tv movie. Mbatha-Raw is convincing both as the sexy R&B babe of her public image and the sensitive Brixton girl smothered beneath, while Parker brings a shy integrity to his man of few words. Minnie Driver is frightening as Noni's mother, and Prince-Blythewood directs them all with a great eye for the nuances and subtleties of body language and eye contact, as well as a good feeling for texture and mood.
Her script makes a virtue of its cliches: when Noni and Kaz escape the spotlight for a beachside idyll, it is affecting to watch them really get to know each other and fall in love. Kaz's reaction to an insult from Noni's rapper ex-boyfriend is funny and believable, for all that it is purest soap opera. And finally, the last act and it's revelatory voyage of self-discovery (for both characters) is moving and never less than entertaining.
It also says interesting things about our relationship with celebrity and the way we fabricate fame and drama, without ever becoming didactic.