Edinburgh 2015: 'Beyond the Lights' review

★★★☆☆
Denied a theatrical release, Gina Price-Blythewood's Beyond the Lights (2014) instead receives its UK premiere at the Edinburgh Film Festival before landing on DVD. While it's certainly no masterpiece, this entertaining drama has more than its fair share of surprises; its sweetly familiar narrative awarded emotional heft by its two leading performance and some unexpected revelations. Noni (Gugu Mbatha-Raw) is the world's latest pop princess. Groomed for superstardom by her overbearing mother (Minnie Driver) without so much as a say in the matter, her quick success quickly takes a hold, leading to a failed suicide attempt where she's saved by police offer Kaz Nicol (Nate Parker).

As her team cover the drama up with lies, it sparks a downward spiral for Noni, where she battles to shed the false image that she's been moulded into. The help for her lies in her blossoming relationship with Kaz, who becomes her guardian angel, drumming it into her that she can stand on her own two feet. Beyond the Lights boasts a conventional narrative structure with all the markings of a typically frothy romantic drama. Yet the script continually scrapes back the sleekly finished surface to reveal a hidden treasure of emotional depth and meaning. It's unexpected to say the least, and takes the film in interesting directions all the while remaining immediately frothy fun.

Price-Blythewood strikes this balance with ease and panache, gradually pulling Noni out of her perfectly preened pop star exterior and into the person she truly is - a woman who's very much in power, who's simply been overruled and disappointed too many times in her life. Kaz is merely the one who shows her the light, and remains with her to ensure she keeps that in her head as much as possible. The arc for Noni is made stronger by Mbatha-Raw's performance. It's one that textured and rich in layers. She nails the sexual pop princess, but arguably hits the home run when able to dig into her character's personality and empowerment. Parker, too, delivers a strong turn as someone also pushed in some degree by an elder, in his case his father (Danny Glover), who has large aspirations for him. Not all the situations ring true and the film damages its own integrity by reaching for the mainstream. But when it puts it back, Beyond the Lights is a surprisingly emotional, powerful drama.

The Edinburgh International Film Festival programme, ticketing details and more can be viewed at edfilmfest.org.uk.

Jamie Neish | @EmptyScreens

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