After landing a breakthrough role in Belle, a period piece in which she portrayed a mixed-race aristocrat, Brit actress Gugu Mbatha-Raw takes a 180-degree turn in Beyond the Lights, a romantic drama from Gina Prince-Bythewood (Disappearing Acts, Love & Basketball). In it, Mbatha-Raw plays Noni, a pop singer who's on the brink of becoming a big star. While Mbatha-Raw is terrific in the part — she shows incredible range here — the film rings false right from the start as it too obviously attempts to explore the trappings of fame and fortune.
The movie opens with a short scene in which we see just how much Noni's mother (Mini Driver) has pushed her to become successful. When a young Noni takes second place during a school talent show, her mother makes her throw the award in the trash. Flash forward a few years and Noni and rapper Kid Culprit (Machine Gun Kelly) have just taken top honors at a nationally televised music awards program. As she's mobbed on her way out of the event, Noni suddenly realizes she's just not happy with the lifestyle. Without saying much of anything, Mbatha-Raw does a good job here of letting her facial expressions and body language show her despondency.
The only person who picks up on the signs that things are not copacetic is Kaz (Nate Parker), the security guard tasked with keeping watch over her hotel room. He steps in to save her from a suicide attempt and his ability to "see" her leaves a lasting impression. The two start dating but problems ensue. Kaz has his own parental problems as his father (Danny Glover) pushes him into politics and advises that dating a trashy pop star isn't good for his image. Plenty of drama ensues and the relationship really wavers.
Barely recognizable with hair extensions and heavy make-up, Mbatha-Raw puts on a helluva performance. She starts the film by looking like a pop star who's every bit as exotic as Beyonce and then goes through a physical (and mental) transformation. Though he probably takes his shirt off one too many times, the hunky Parker turns in a solid performance as well. And Machine Gun Kelly doesn't have to work too hard to play a foul-mouthed rapper — he appears comfortable in his acting debut. But the melodrama here just seems so forced. As an indictment of celebrity culture, the film, which opens areawide on Friday, doesn't tell us anything we don't already know.