It sounds like chick-flick hell: A stage mother (Minnie Driver) pushes her Rihanna-like daughter (Gugu Mbatha-Raw) so hard that the kid almost dives off a hotel balcony before her first album drops. In Bodyguard style, a decent cop (Nate Parker) shows up to save her. To everyone’s surprise, especially mine, the clichés yield a remarkably engrossing love story with the wit to know truth from twaddle. Writer-director Gina Prince-Bythewood, who performed similar magic with Love & Basketball (2000), knows her way around the business of show and showing off. The details ring deep and true. After her start as a biracial Brit tyke in a cheap music competition – her a cappella version of Nina Simone’s “Blackbird” is a heartbreaker – Noni (Mbatha-Raw) builds a career through “face-down, ass-up” packaging. Mom doesn’t mind as long as she’s the one doing the exploiting. It’s Noni who balks at faking S&M sex onstage with her white-rapper lover (Colson “Machine Gun Kelly” Baker). She yearns to let out her natural voice.
Prince-Bythewood is stingingly astute at what fame does to objectify women. Low self-esteem leads to Noni’s suicide attempt. It’s Kaz (Parker), an L.A. cop with political ambitions, who talks her off the ledge. Their romance is far from storybook. Her mom wants him gone. So does his cop dad (Danny Glover). There are times when Noni and Kaz don’t see a future in each other.
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There’s enough plot here to sink a soap opera, but the actors prevail. Parker is a no-bull charmer. Driver leaves bite marks on her juicy role. And Mbatha-Raw, so good this year in Belle, is dynamite. The dark fires she reveals under Noni’s cool exterior singe the screen. Even her R&B/hip-hop singing hits the mark in songs by the-Dream. Mbatha-Raw has been nominated with the likes of Julianne Moore and Patricia Arquette for a Gotham Independent Film Award. She’s a shining new star. Beyond the Lights brims with surprises that befit the title. It’s electrifying.