Director Gina Prince-Bythewood, best known for her previous films Love & Basketball and The Secret Lives of Bees, returns to the festival this year with her new film Beyond the Lights. Set against the chaotic world of the Los Angeles music scene, the film tells the story a young singer on the brink of stardom pushed to the edge by the demands of fame and her team of record label executives, including her mother who is also her manager. What price are we willing to pay to achieve our dreams and how do we find our voice when we’ve lost our way?
Noni Jean (Gugu Mbatha-Raw) is a young singer on the brink of superstardom. Having put in her time being partnered up with more successful performers, the time has come where she recognizable enough on her own to be able to release a solo album. After humble beginnings performing in talent shows as a kid, Noni’s mother Macy (Minnie Driver) is determined to make a name for herself and her daughter and is relentless in the pursuit of success.
One night after performing and winning at an awards show, Noni is on the verge of suicide due to the overwhelming pressures of fame and the dignity she has had to sacrifice to get there. She is saved by Officer Kaz Nicol who has been assigned to protect her. Bound by that moment, they are drawn together and fall for each other fast and hard. Noni begins to realize that the love and security Kaz provides is what she needs to find the courage to speak out and find her own voice.
The strength of this movie lies in the performance of the two lead actors. Gugu Mbatha-Raw and Nate Parker have an electric and palpable chemistry together on screen which gives their relationship emotional sincerity that prevents the film from descending into cliché. While these characters may travel on a somewhat calculated arc, the director is able to pull delightful performances out of these two that gives the film a truthful authenticity. It is also worth nothing that Minnie Driver also gives a standout performance as Noni’s demanding mother and manager, with her ferocious quest to prove to those around her that she has made a life for herself.
The film is also accompanied by beautiful and fitting soundtrack that mimics the journey Noni travels on. It begins with the hip hop sounds of her early performances in the film and slowly progresses to being more authentic and heartfelt as she finds her true inner voice and trusts the lyrics she has written for herself.
While likely not an awards-contending film, it is on par with the rest of the director’s films and an excellent addition to her body of work. This is the kind of film that very easily could have fallen into being a schmaltzy love story “chick flick” given the predictable nature of the story, but it manages to stay grounded and genuine. This is a good solid film that leaves the viewer feeling hopeful and emotionally satisfied.