At one point in Vox Lux, which opens on Friday at the Cedar Lee Theatre, Celeste (Natalie Portman) gives her daughter a bit of advice. "It doesn't matter if you're Michelangelo or Michael and Angelo from New Brighton," she says. "All you need is an angle." That statement seems to sum up the point of this drama that starts slow but finishes strong as it explores the trappings of stardom.
The film opens in dramatic fashion with a school shooting. When the shooter comes into her classroom, a teenaged Celeste (Raffey Cassidy) tries to reason with the kid and tells him to let the other students go, so they can sit and pray with one another and, you know, work things out with God. It's a bit naïve but also incredibly brave and shows just how fearless Celeste could be.
The shooter, however, responds by gunning down the other students and grazing Celeste. She recovers and, at a memorial for the students who died, sings a touching song that she and her sister wrote about the incident. Her performance inadvertently jump-starts her career, and a star is born.
Pop stardom carries some pretty heavy baggage, and Celeste immediately teams up with her sister Eleanor (Stacy Martin), a manager (Jude Law) and a publicist (Jennifer Ehle) to help her carry that load.
Flash forward to 2017 and Celeste (Natalie Portman) has become a mega star who can't even walk outside her hotel room without being accosted by paparazzi. She's still relying on her sister, manager and publicist, but those relationships now feel more co-dependent. Her sister writes her songs, her manager provides her with the drugs she wants and her publicist covers for her when some kind of controversy emerges. And there are plenty of controversies. Celeste pays millions to a pedestrian she hits with her car, and she has a difficult time relating to her daughter (also played by Cassidy).
The film's second half feels like a completely different film (Willem Dafoe struggles to make it all connect with his voice-over), but it's also the more compelling half since it's the half that features Portman, who gives a solid performance. The second half also includes more concert footage, and Portman is quite convincing in those scenes and comes off as a Katy Perry/Lady Gaga-like pop diva who's had to overcome a difficult upbringing.