This is turning into a very good year for Gugu Mbatha-Raw. The intimations of stardom that were evident in Belle come into full blossom in Beyond the Lights. As a work of art, the movie is merely on the bright side of OK. But as a vehicle for an emerging star, as a platform to show one actress in a variety of modes and moods, within a sympathetic and glamorous context, it couldn't be better.
Another way of saying this is that Mbatha-Raw is the whole picture. Those who invest in her and her journey might end up loving Beyond the Lights, even against their will. Those who resist her and watch the movie at a remove will inevitably be put off by the hamfisted manipulations of character and story — including that worst of all faults of the movie romance, the fake argument that occurs 20 minutes before the finish.
Mbatha-Raw plays a newly minted pop star from Britain, with Rhianna-like hair-extenders and a sexed-up persona. Driven by a fierce stage mother (Minnie Driver), she is on the brink of becoming a massive stateside sensation — when she gets drunk one night and tries to jump off the hotel balcony. She is saved by a handsome young police officer, and . . . well, if you know point A, you sort of know Point Z. The pleasure is in witnessing all the stages in between.
Over the course of the film, Mbatha-Raw does many things, all of them quite well. There's a moment, early in the film, when a fan says, "I love you," and she looks disturbed, as though wondering how that could even be possible. In her dealings with people, she has a curious double-thing going on, a misery laced with pride. She knows she's not happy, but she knows she has something others want, or think they want. She exudes power without joy.
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As a singer, Mbatha-Raw must deliver the goods as a pop star, which she does. Then, adopting another style, she sings Nina Simone's Blackbird with an emotional commitment that's riveting. And all the while, we are tracing her character's up and down journey toward finding her own truth, as an artist and as a person.
Nate Parker has the role of Kaz, the heroic police officer, and he stays afloat, despite a plot that pushes him into behaviors and attitudes that aren't consistent and don't quite make sense. As the stage mother, riding the gravy train to the right side of the tracks, Minnie Driver has an aggression bordering on cruelty — at least until she and director Gina Prince-Blythewood pull back and look for the human being underneath. Sometimes surfaces are more interesting.
There are many little things to complain about, if anyone wants to complain. The events that send the pop star's career up and down wouldn't really wreak such strong effect. There's a stage of fame in which any publicity is either good or doesn't much matter. But these flaws and exaggerations, though impossible not to notice, are easy enough to ignore, when you have Mbatha-Raw on screen, giving it everything she's got.