Those perpetually looking, usually in vain, for non-teenage love stories at the movies have two good (and very different) options this week: “The Theory of Everything,” about the marriage of Stephen and Jane Hawking, and the light-years-away “Beyond the Lights,” a well-told and well-cast tale of fictional British R&B singer Noni Jean (Gugu Mbatha-Raw) and the handsome L.A. cop Kaz (Nate Parker) with whom she falls in love.
Before you start thinking “The Bodyguard,” note that this film is from writer/director Gina Prince-Bythewood, who showed us years ago in “Love and Basketball” that she has a knack for creating romantic stories about people who seem real to us — people who we want to see together. And in Mbatha-Raw, she’s caught a star on the rise. Seen earlier this year in period garb in the 18th-century drama “Belle,” Mbatha-Raw has an enchanting naturalness on screen. “Beyond the Lights” presents her in a very different performance (Austen-esque heiresses employ different speech patterns from modern-day recording artists, to say the least), but with the same effect: you’re drawn to her, and you root for her; there’s something in Mbatha-Raw’s lovely, direct gaze that pulls us in.
It’s a story that, under different management, might veer into melodrama: Noni, who has a troubled relationship with her young single mother (Minnie Driver), struggles to manage her fame; she’s pulled into a world in which her image is sexualized, her relationships are stage-managed and her creativity stifled. Prince-Bythewood comments on this (note Noni’s very naked costumes, and how much more like herself she seems when covered), but keeps the focus on the two lovers. Kaz isn’t quite what we expect — he’s got political ambitions and his father warns him that “this one ain’t First Lady material” — but he’s sweet, kind and capable of whipping off his shirt extremely quickly. (Expect a few swoons in the theater.) “Beyond the Lights” is the kind of movie that we don’t see often enough: a warmhearted story that leaves its characters — and its audience — happy.
Moira Macdonald: 206-464-2725 or firstname.lastname@example.org
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