Beyond the Lights ★★½

[5]

No question, the main attraction of Beyond the Lights is Gugu Mbatha-Raw, whose performance here is truly outstanding. (I wish I'd seen BtL before submitting my Skandies ballot.) It's not just that she commands the screen with a natural charisma and insouciant sensuality. Her portrayal of Noni is practically on par with Ayrton Senna, given that she must negotiate hairpin turns in characterization and plot more customary in Lifetime movies or telenovelas than the usual Hollywood product.

This isn't always a problem, since the crux of the film is Noni's struggle for identity. She has to turn certain parts of herself on and off, which is possible because she has been raised by her mother (Minnie Driver) to be a spectacle. Noni has an interior life, but it keeps getting shoved back down or treated like a lisp or stutter that threatens to come back at inopportune times to ruin "the game." All of this is spelled out by Gina Prince-Bythewood's script; there's little subtlety in BtL.

But that may be beside the point. Given that her film deliberately echoes The Bodyguard, and by extension Whitney Houston (even though aspects of Noni are meant to recall Rihanna), Prince-Bythewood seems interested in playing with tantalizing bits of the familiar, just fragmentary enough to prevent the formation of a coherent allegory. When we recognize these tropes, perhaps it turns the cognitive activity Bordwell discusses into a kind of call-and-response.

All the same, there is an overinvestment in the plot's chiché trajectory and character stereotyping that is troublesome even if it's meant to be slightly ironic or a second-order commentary. There's no getting around the fact that the bland, self-righteous Kaz (Nate Parker) is Noni's savior figure from start to finish, something that seems to undercut Noni's self-actualization. Now, I'm going to put this objection in brackets because I am not at all sure this isn't a problem of my own lack of historical knowledge. I'm thinking perhaps there'a a cultural difference issue here that I don't get.

Comments welcome.