Mbatha-Raw (left) brings vulnerability and fierce pipes to the screen.
As meet-cutes go, Beyond the Lights offers a doozy. When Los Angeles police officer Kaz (Nate Parker) first encounters rising star Noni (Gugu Mbatha-Raw), she's hanging off her balcony. "I see you," the cop assures the distraught performer, saving her with his quick instincts and sheer strength. He soon gets caught up in the soul-crushing media circus that surrounds her 24/7.
The premise evokes showbiz melodramas like The Bodyguard, repeating old truisms about the toxicity of tabloid culture. Yet writer-director Gina Prince-Bythewood (Love & Basketball) navigates these waters so deftly that the story never flounders. Take, for instance, the introduction of young Noni (India Jean-Jacques) belting out Nina Simone's "Blackbird" with amazing verve at a school talent show, only to claim second place. Soon after, her mother (Minnie Driver) tells her to chuck the trophy, remarking, "You don't want to be a runner-up; you want to be a winner." Prince-Bythewood then cuts to grown-up Noni thrusting her hips in a rap video while wearing an outfit that would make a stripper blush.
It's an uncomfortable contrast, questioning the objectification of talented young women without becoming preachy. That level of sensitivity runs throughout the film. In a similar manner, Prince-Bythewood suggests race issues rather than explicitly addressing them. Just as white judges kept Noni down in school, the media portray her as subservient to white-boy rapper Kid Culprit (Richard Colson Baker, aka real-life rapper Machine Gun Kelly) until her own album drops.
Meanwhile, Kaz's dad (Danny Glover) tries to groom him for politics. Kaz is repeatedly deterred from hanging out with a figure as provocative as Noni. But given the palpable chemistry he and she have, it's little wonder they seek comfort in each other's arms. Parker is convincing as a reluctant knight in shining armor, but his performance pales in comparison to Mbatha-Raw's star-making turn, which features volatility, vulnerability and a fierce set of pipes.
Overall, Beyond the Lights is a modern fairy tale grounded in something resembling reality, fractured by external circumstances and the characters' internal doubts. Even Driver's stage mom isn't a true villain. She's driven by maternal devotion as much as controlling determination. And throughout the film, Prince-Bythewood makes the little moments matter as much as the big, dramatic scenes. A gesture as simple as Noni removing her weave reverberates with defiance against an indifferent industry. It all goes to show that people matter more than products.