We're all familiar with the trope of the sad celebrity. Rappers like Eminem and Drake have made careers off of it. We can't turn on the television without seeing some reality TV dope gushing crocodile tears over one bit of nonsense or the other. Some of our most beloved stars are genuinely depressed and would still be with us if they could have been helped just a little bit more.
The people in the latter situation provide the jumping-off point for Beyond the Lights. Noni Jean (Gugu Mbatha-Raw) is a British pop superstar performing in America, managed by her domineering mother, Macy (Minnie Driver). She's wildly successful, gorgeous, and talented. When we first see her, she's winning a Billboard award and falling into the arms of her rapper boyfriend, Kid Culprit (real-life rapper Richard "MGK" Colson). On the car ride back to her hotel, she downs a bottle of champagne, pops up to her room, and almost throws herself off her balcony. She's saved at the last minute by a soulful-looking cop named Kaz (Nate Parker), whose imploring line, "I see you" convinces Noni not to let go. Thus begins a romance between the two, driven off the tracks by their vastly different worlds.
All of this sounds like the setup to a bad CW show, but writer-direct Gina Prince-Bythewood knows her way around a romance, and she keeps it all from falling off the rails. Beyond the Lights is quiet when you expect noise, tough when you expect mush, and surprising when you expect cliche. The film is shot intimately through handheld cinematography by Tami Reiker, with some luminously lovely moments at the height of the couples romantic bliss. You continue to expect the film to become hysterical and wrapped up in the backstage world of Noni's celebrity, but Prince-Bythewood keeps a tight rein on that environment. Even when Noni is half-heartedly giving her friends a lap dance at the club, the scene is shot from a distance, indicating that her mind is clearly elsewhere. There may not be a whole lot of visual flair to the story, but Prince-Bythewood uses subtle touches well.
Also kept refreshingly low-key are the performances by the three leads. Mbatha-Raw is having a breakout year, turning in acclaimed work with Belle and now this. She deftly moves between her public and private personas as Noni, indicating this shift chiefly through body language and her eyes. She's stunning to look at, the kind of pretty that has you gawking at the screen like a museum-goer, yet she never depends on her looks to get her by. She feels like a fully realized human being, in spite of the years of similar roles that have played across the screen in cinema history. Parker is dialed down and earnest as Kaz, the sort of stand-up gentleman you'd like to take home to your parents. He has a quiet voice that imbues his performance with a feeling of honesty, which fits in perfectly with his character's staunch devotion to truth. Driver is especially good as Macy, teasing you with hints of her being the shrill stage mother from hell, until she breaks down and reveals that her drive is motivated by a constant fear of poverty. She might have a shot at an Oscar nomination if she campaigns right.
I don't want to oversell Beyond the Lights. Although it bucks the formula, it is still very much of its genre. As such, the ending is predictable, although the journey there is frequently not. There are also distracting cameos by pop stars, including a particularly pointless one by a charisma-free Big Sean. MGK is an intimidating presence in his first role, but he needs to take many more acting classes before he does anything else. The script has its weak moments, as well, in which characters deliver lines that were literally taken off a refrigerator magnet. The film could also have used a bit more judicious editing, as there are a couple of montages that are in dire need of a trim.
As far a Hollywood romances go—especially ones with a mostly black cast, which are particularly rare—Beyond the Lights is a cut above the rest. Most happily of all, it cements Mbatha-Raw as an actress who needs to be taken seriously. I guarantee we'll be seeing a lot of her in the years to come.