More than anything, Gina Prince-Bythewood’s Beyond the Lights is a great romance. It’s not like we get a new one of those everyday. It’s about two people who make a meaningful connection, seeing the real souls behind images being constructed for them in the beginning stages of public personas, one a pop star, the other a politician. In the process of following their connection, the film weaves together showbiz drama and political ambitions to make a fine point about negotiations between public and private selves, and potential solace in finding a person who seems to love you for who you are, not just what you represent. It’s a sharply drawn, deeply felt story, as smart as it is sexy, as complicated as it is compassionate. It helps that it’s not a romantic fantasy, or rather, not only fantasy.
They meet at a moment of high drama. She’s Noni (Gugu Mbatha-Raw), an R&B diva on the rise. She hasn’t even released her first album yet, but she’s come a long way from getting second place in local talent competitions of her childhood, like the one that opens the film. Collaborations on hit songs – we see the video for one, a writhing, hyper-sexualized thing – with dim bulb rapper Kid Culprit (Richard Colson Baker) have just won her a Billboard Music Award. Everything’s looking up, but after the afterparty, when the handsome young cop (Nate Parker) bursts into her hotel room, she’s about to jump off the balcony. He saves her life, and her grateful stage mom manager (Minnie Driver in an intense performance) convinces him to tell everyone she merely slipped. The world knowing about the suicide attempt could really derail her rising star.
A more sensationalistic writer-director might take these early scenes as a launching pad for increasing stakes and twists. Instead, the film settles into a comfortable exploration of these characters. The actors provide nicely layered performances, able to play multifaceted people with ease. Noni is grateful for her hero cop’s help, and he’s drawn to her glimmer of personality hiding under half-dressed magazine-cover poses and hip-shaking choreography. They start a flirtation that becomes a tentative relationship, hounded at every turn by the gossip press and the dictates of their parents. Her mother wants to make sure her daughter's album drops flawlessly, and doesn’t want the new beau reminding the public about the incident. His father, the chief of police (Danny Glover), is helping his son prepare a run for city council, taking meetings with donors, consultants, party leaders. He has big dreams for his son, at one point telling him Noni isn’t “first lady material.”
This perspective makes the couple into rounded, complex people instead of cogs in a machine running on cheap dramatics. There isn’t a sense of inevitability because it’s grounded where the average Nicolas Sparks adaptation prefers sun-dappled fantasy. We understand where the characters are coming from, the goals they’ve worked so hard to achieve. It makes their connection all the more potent, to know what makes them tick apart from the spark between them. Too many movie romances rush this part, defining the central couple largely by how they interact with each other. This is a melodrama that earns its every tug on the heartstrings. The film is balanced, allowing us to see the surface allure that draws each in. He sees the glamour and fame of her lifestyle. She sees him as the square-jawed hero. But we also see how fragile a manufactured star she is, as well as the workaday cop duties and pragmatic political calculations he must consider.
With fine, realistic detail, we come to understand how the world works in their bubbles, what dictates the controls over their lives, and what difficulties may arise reconciling the two. These are characters whose ambitions are boxing them in, who let in some fresh air by finding a romantic spirit in an unexpected place, even at the risk of derailing their perfect plans for public life. There’s not a scene out of place as the film develops their lives and personalities separately and together. Parker’s dazed but encouraging presence is a nice match to the stifled insecurities Mbatha-Raw brings to the fore as we see glossy awards shows, photoshoots, and meetings with record labels contrasted with police calls and meet-and-greets. They’re both clad in uniforms. Hers are clinging dresses draped in chains, plunging necklines, and her straight purple hair. His are more literal, a police uniform, sharp suits. When they’re together, they’re more casual, relaxed, themselves. The wardrobes draw off-handed focus to their bodies, a sensuality that amplifies the comfort they increasingly feel towards each other.
The evolution of their relationship is so closely observed, wonderfully performed by the talented cast, and precisely developed by writer-director Gina Prince-Bythewood. It’s not a film that declares itself loudly, but is so confident in its characters and perspective that it grabbed me in the opening frames and never let go. It’s the rare romance movie in which I actually was completely involved in the couple’s plight, desperate for them to find a way to be together. Their individual plotlines are finely detailed, with great scenes apart from one another, the better to make their scenes together sizzle with easy chemistry and swooning charm. It’s a great romance because it’s a good story with interesting characters. It would work as drama even without the romance, about the intimacy, not only between lovers, but collaborators, business partners, and parents and children as well. It has scenes that unfold with such simplicity and restraint, I found myself taken aback by how moved I was.
Prince-Bythewood is a major, often vastly underappreciated, voice in American cinema. With heartfelt romances like Love & Basketball and Disappearing Acts, and an appealing literary adaptation, The Secret Life of Bees, she’s proven herself a subtle and mature filmmaker. Her camera doesn’t call attention to itself. Her filmmaking craft is the stuff of sturdy, expert studio construction. But that invisible skill, no less effective than a more showboating style, allows her every frame to exude a well-considered eye for emotional terrains. With Beyond the Lights, she continues to be one of the last great Hollywood melodramatists. She’s unafraid to earnestly and tenderly tell stories of relationships without apology. This is her best film, a full, stick-to-the-ribs, heartwarming drama, rich with feeling.
Here we have a beautifully told story of human connection struggling to catch fire in a world that craves only shallow fakery and transactional relationships. It’s genuinely affecting, with larger themes, most potently about the way women are treated in the entertainment business, growing naturally out of who the characters are, why they make certain choices, and what they need from each other. This isn’t an uncomplicated love-conquers-all scenario with perfect soul mates healing each other. No, this is a mature and complicatedly nuanced story that earns its every moment of drama. Because it gives us something to care about beyond the relationship, it heightens the potency of the romance. It could’ve easily been maudlin in its relationship, scolding in its look at the entertainment business. But it’s not. The script has a sympathetic and subtle understanding of love, fame, depression, and self-actualization. It’s simply clear-eyed, genuine, and moving.