Beyond the Lights is peppered with the constant blink and flash of cameras. Wherever main character Noni goes she is followed by the persistent call of strangers, with every moment spent in the public eye recorded, photographed and witnessed by dogged paparazzi and screaming fans. It’s exhausting to watch. You think it’s going to stop after awhile but it’s relentless and, eventually, irritating – it’s also a clever backdrop to a film that has a lot to say about the dark side of fame.
Writer-director Gina Prince-Bythewood’s third feature film follows an up-and-coming singer on the brink of releasing her debut album; Noni (played brilliantly by Gugu Mbatha-Raw) is a Rihanna-esque superstar with an overbearing mother (Minnie Driver) and a quiet personality that’s at odds with the provocative figure she portrays for the media. After a chance encounter with a police officer (Nate Parker) who has identity issues of his own, Noni’s lifestyle – and the glitzy world that’s been constructed around her – starts to crack and crumble.
Although Beyond the Lights is a comment on the world of celebrity and the objectifying treatment of those in the public eye, it’s also a film about depression and the vast gulf between how someone’s life can look on the outside and how they’re actually feeling beneath the surface. “I feel like I’m suffocating in the street and no one can see me dying,” says Noni, after smashing her framed magazine covers in the aftermath of an argument with her mother. It’s one of the rare occasions when she lets her armour down, and what she says resonates throughout the film. For the most part, Prince-Bythewood’s script gets the balance right between what the characters say and how they act, giving the actors enough room to perform while reinforcing their stories with well-handled dialogue. It’s not completely perfect – there are a couple of moments when the script borders on cheese, for instance – but the majority of the time it feels realistic enough.
Perhaps the theme that comes through the strongest in the film, though, is the danger of overbearing parents. Minnie Driver is excellent as Noni’s forceful, controlling mother, putting her mark on the film – and her daughter’s life – in the very opening sequence, in which she storms out of a talent contest before forcing a younger Noni to throw away her runner-up prize. Police officer Kaz’s difficult relationship with his father, while slightly more subtle, is also a telling insight into the confusion that can result from a parent thinking they know exactly what it is that their child wants from the world.
Prince-Bythewood does a good job of weaving all these themes together and, although the end result could be slightly more polished, shows a clear understanding of the internal conflicts and struggles that everyone fights with on a daily basis – even the people whose lives are most desired and celebrated in the public eye.