Friday, November 21, 2014
Beyond the Lights 
CNS/USCCB (J. Mulderig) review
ChicagoTribune (R. Moore) review
RogerEbert.com (O. Henderson) review
AVClub (K. Ulrich) review
Like many films of its type, the teen (teen) / "young adult" (early/mid 20-something) oriented film Beyond the Lights  (screenplay written and directed by Gina Prince-Bythewood) tries really hard to be "hip", even to the point of resorting to the hyper-sexualized imagery that the film actually seeks to criticize. In any case, it is absolutely clear that the _intention_ of the filmmaker is to invite the audience to SEE "Beyond the Lights" even as those lights are, well, quite DISTRACTING and OFTEN VERY, VERY BRIGHT. Still, if one can get "beyond" the "Bright Lights" then there are actually a surprising number of themes in this film that young people could certainly relate to.
The story is about mixed-race, part African-descended singer named Noni (played briefly as a girl by India Jean-Jacques and then, for most of the film, as a 20-something-young-adult by Gugu Mbatha-Raw). And she has a perhaps loving but certainly insecure "helicopter mother" named Macy Jean (played by Minnie Driver).
The film begins with 10 year old Noni winning second place in some neighborhood talent contest in some random city somewhere in England, with mom Macy Jean telling her afterwards to throw away her second place trophy asking her: "Do you want to be a runner-up all your life or do you want to become a winner?" That's kind of a tough lesson to teach a 10 year old who's probably holding the first trophy that she's won in her life ...
Well, Noni grows-up to be "a winner" !! Does she ever! She becomes a hyper-commercialized HIP-HOP SENSATION. Strategically positioned suspenders or, even more tellingly, GOLD SHACKLES AND CHAINS often serve as her "top." HER RACE becomes all but UNKNOWABLE, her skin being "kinda tan," her hair a straight, purple-died weave, her voice remaining somewhat "british-y" in accent. She also has a made-to-order white head-to-toe tattoo-covered bad-boy rap-star (keep 'em talkin' about you...) celebrity "boyfriend."
Well how much "makeup" can one possibly bear? So ... after _winning_ some random music award at some random glitzy Los Angeles music awards show, Noni takes a few swigs of some kind of champagne, she comes back to her hotel room, asks the guard, an off-duty LAPD cop named Kaz (played by Nate Parker) to "let no one pass" and ... (actually) if not for her pushy mom, not letting officer/security guard Kaz "keep her out of her daughter's room" ... nearly throws herself-off the balcony ... A "cry for help"?? Ya think?
In truth, while ma' forced Kaz to let her in to her daughter's room, allowing both her and Officer Kaz to see Noni there on the balcony, it was actually Kaz who was able to save her. (Ma' just froze).
Now what the heck to do? Kaz (looking from the outside) immediately understands Noni to be one troubled young woman. Ma' who's been super-involved in Noni's life (to the point that she was her "manager") honestly doesn't see. Perhaps she's just "too close," perhaps like the manager husband of the (falling) "Country superstar" in Country Strong  she's just too invested in her loved one's "success" to see clearly, perhaps she just doesn't have a clue. In any case, a few hours after Officer Kaz literally pulled Noni, dangling, off the balcony, a preemptive "press conference" is called (in case "anybody saw" what actually happened) where Noni "confesses" to the incident, blames it on "a few too many celebratory drinks," thanks Kaz for pulling her to safety ... and ... well, did you know that we're coming new, super hot album, that'll be in stores in a couple of weeks ... (business as usual)."
But business is, of course, not as usual.
In the midst of a life of so much glitz and nobody, nobody, nobody being honest ... Kaz, becomes the first "normal" person that entered (okay, randomly...) into Noni's life in a long time. And Noni, virtual demi-Goddess that she is, decides that she's going to look him up and bring him into her life. That's probably the smartest (early) thing that Noni does in the story. But, in truth, she's actually pretty lucky. It turns out that Kaz is available to come into Noni's life (this could have become a far more tragic story if Kaz had been quite married with two kids living "in the valley").
Even so,Kaz has his own story/issues. It turns out that he has a "helicopter parent" of his own. His dad, LAPD as well (played by Danny Glover) had some ambitions for his son as well. He wanted him to eventually become a politician. As such, Kaz' life has been quite scripted as well -- science degree apparently in college, then instead of going into industry, "deciding" to "go into service" as a police officer "on the beat in LA," then after some years of that "gig" find some political office to run for. Dad sees "strung out Hip-hop star with issues" Noni as not exactly "First Lady potential..." AND CERTAINLY NOT THE KIND OF GIRLFRIEND THAT WOULD ENGENDER CONFIDENCE FROM THE AFRICAN AMERICAN PASTORS whose support Kaz was going need if he'd ever really enter Politics. (But does Kaz really want to be a politician? ... Or is this just dad's dream ...?)
What to do? Well ... eventually THE TWO RUN AWAY (TOGETHER).
This (not altogether surprising) "plot twist" becomes (more or less correctly) the primary criticism of the U.S. Catholic Bishops' office's review of the film: Why show (once again...) a young couple (more or less obviously) sleeping together first before getting married? This a not-at-all-surprising (and again more-or-less clearly correct) criticism of the film by a major and quite authorative voice of the Faith community.
I would suggest the following, however: Yes, probably the two probably would have slept together, BUT GIVEN their emotional states at the time PROBABLY NOT ALL THAT MUCH. Noni, in particular, was a total mess. Is there anything particularly revelatory or beautiful about sex (1) when one's a total mess, or (2) one's having sex with someone who's a total mess? In the first instance, sex comes akin to desperately getting bombed on alcohol or stoned on some other drug. In the second, it's akin to knocking-out and date-raping somebody. In either case, there's not much particularly "beautiful" about it. Perhaps there's another option, (3) "celebratory sex" after "drying out." But that's then akin to "going to the tavern to celebrate two weeks of 'sobriety.'"
So regardless of what the film implies, I just don't believe that there'd actually be a whole lot of sex going on between the two when they run off to Mexico. Nani simply had too many issues to sort through, and even Kaz had to make some decisions and sort through some issues as well (including how involved would he have wanted to become with a young woman who really did need some time to figure things out).
So I'm not surprised that they would have run off together. But I don't think that there'd really be all that much (sexually) going-on until they did "sober up" and when they did ... then the real questions would begin: Do I even like you? Do I want to have children, spend the rest of my life with you? The answers could be yes. But ... it'd be slower than perhaps the film'd imply.
So the film does tell an interesting and current story. But the Bishops' office here is right. The imagery is perhaps needlessly sexualized and that makes it hard, even for the viewer, to get "Beyond the Lights."
Still as a 20-something discussion piece, at a distance, the film might not be bad.
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