Gina Prince-Bythewood’s melodrama is weirdly good

by Jorge Ignacio Castillo

beyondthelightsBeyond the Lights
3 out of 5

The name may not tell you anything, but Gugu Mbatha-Raw is having a banner year. The stunning British actress kicked off 2014 in the period drama Belle, as a biracial aristocrat who struggles with segregation despite her status.

Now, Gugu closes the year with the unexpectedly solid melodrama Beyond the Lights.

At first glance, there isn’t anything original about the film. Noni (Mbatha-Raw) is a gifted up-and-coming pop singer who, following a nervous breakdown, attempts suicide. A young police officer named Kaz (Nate Parker, Red Tails) saves her at the last possible second. Their instant connection develops into romance, but the amount of baggage they both bring into the relationship puts it at constant risk of derailing. But their bond is the one healthy connection either of them have, so they pretty much have to press forward.

The character work separates Beyond the Lights from similar fairy tales. Noni’s been raised by a stage mom (a scary Minnie Driver) who sees stardom as the ultimate goal, despite the fact that her daughter would rather become the next Nina Simone than another Ciara knock-off. Kaz, meanwhile, has political ambitions — and if he wants to gain the support of the local spiritual leaders, he shouldn’t be found anywhere near a trainwreck like Noni.

Director Gina Prince-Bythewood (Love & Basketball), one of the very few African-American women to consistently stand behind cameras, succeeds at making this fairly farfetched story believable. It’s an example of a relationship in which both participants step out of their parents’ shadows and grow.

Beyond the Lights has a positive message, and the way it gets that message across is a lot less stereotypical than you’d imagine.