Wednesday, February 25, 2015

"Beyond The Lights": A Uniquely Feminist Romance

Now Available on DVD and Blu-Ray

Beyond The Lights piqued my interest for one reason: it is a dramatic romance that was critically well-received.  Romances as a genre are notorious for being shallow and formulaic, often relying on little more than the physical chemistry (or imaginations thereof) of the two leads.  If that’s your escapist fantasy, I suppose there’s nothing really wrong with that, but it’s hard to deny that most times romances are made on the cheap and released on box office off-weekends with the hopes of drawing in women and their obliging dates.  So what makes Beyond The Lights so different?  Well, first of all, it seems like director Gina Prince-Bythewood actually gives a damn about producing a powerful piece of cinema, and despite the film still adhering to tried and true genre conventions, she largely succeeds.

Our protagonist is Noni, a budding pop star who has been pushed by her mother all her life to be the best.  Under the pressure of being in the constant spotlight and having to adhere to a staged romance with a fellow performer, she climbs her hotel room balcony with the intention of jumping.  Enter Kaz, a police officer who responds to the emergency call and ultimately pulls her back from the brink.  Through a series of chance meetings and revealing conversations, it becomes clear that the two have a lot in common, with Noni’s mother pushing her into becoming a sexualized pop idol in the name of success and Kaz’s father pushing him into politics, even though police work is how he truly feels fulfilled.  Through their newfound love, they begin to find the strength to overcome their predestined paths and break free of their parents’ control.

Now, this sounds like a fairly typical Romeo and Juliet situation, and from a structural standpoint, that’s all too accurate.  However, what really sells this film is that the two leads develop in such a way that feels realistic, both in its emotion and its pacing.  The film knows to take its time, allowing the couple to learn about and understand each other as normal human beings would.  When the two finally do start becoming intimate and sexual, it’s easy to see the connection between them, because we’ve watched it develop and know that there’s more to this than just lust.  The fact that film takes time to develop the two characters separate from one another in dedicated scenes only strengthens the feeling that these are real people experiencing realistic emotions.

But perhaps what elevates this film beyond just being good is that it communicates an incredibly vital message about the objectification of female pop idols.  In order to get to the top, women of that profession must sell their sexual appeal, their personal and private lives, and their souls to make it to the top of the charts.  To see it portrayed from the singer’s perspective, with adoring fans who know nothing of the real her as they scream for more drama and tabloid performing, it really becomes a small wonder that more celebrities don’t succumb to the pressure and break down.  The film shows all this through Noni's controlling mother/manager and the steps her record label coerces her to take in order to promote her image, and it makes Noni’s plight a sympathetic one, one that a lesser film would have glossed over in favor of providing a fantasy-fulfillment scenario.

Beyond The Lights may have the bones of a romantic film, but the portrayal and thematic meat on those bones truly elevate it to be something special.  I wouldn’t go so far as to call it a genre great, but when a romantic film is smartly written, well-acted, and subtextually rich, it’s worth taking notice.  If this type of film is up your alley, I recommend giving it a look.

Have a favorite romantic flick?  Share it in the comments below.


  1. You've Got Mail is one of my re-watches. It's not the chemistry so much, it's the ambiance, the fantasy of having that kind of life (hers, not his). Also at this point the product placement makes me incredibly nostalgic rather than eyerolling, so there's that. I don't defend it as one of the great works of cinema of our age. Now if you want to hear about feminist romance NOVELS, I can talk your ear off.

    One thing I see a lot in "feminist" empowerment stories is lifting up Female Lead as special and different from "those" women--who are basically feminine--usually because of her assertiveness/intelligence/adoption of masculine traits or lifestyles. Usually the foil is the Male Lead's jealous ex, but it sounds like it might be the mother in this movie. So--this isn't a deal-breaker, I might watch it anyway--is this a movie where the secret to being an empowered woman is learning that the opinions of other women are useless and only men's views matter?

  2. No, I wouldn't say that's within the film's thematic underpinnings. Her empowerment doesn't come from the adoption of masculine ideals or the rejection of femininity, but from a rejection of the pop-star culture that reduces her to her idolatrous and sexual appeal.