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Cinema in Focus: ‘Beyond the Lights’

3 Stars — Troubling

Parents’ ambitions for their children often hurt their relationships and damage their identities. Thinking that they are helping their children succeed, their love can be eclipsed by the high expectations placed upon the children, and their highest priorities are placed upon the achievement of goals that were never agreed upon by their children nor modified in ways that allow those children to have a voice. The result is an even more complex parent-child relationship that comes to a head when the child comes of age.

It is this complex relationship that is the theme of Beyond the Lights, written and directed by Gina Prince-Bythewood.

The two young people whose parents have ambitions for them are Noni (Gugu Mbatha-Raw as an adult and India Jean-Jacques at 10) and Kaz (Nate Parker). Noni’s mother, Macy Jean (Minnie Driver), had Noni when she was a teenager and desperately needed to prove everyone wrong about her inability to care for herself and her daughter. Kaz’s father, Capt. Nicol (Danny Glover), wanted his son to achieve a greater level than he had achieved by being a police captain. Both are consumed by their adult children’s futures.

The plot thickens when Kaz saves Noni’s life in an experience that brings their two lives together. It occurs in a way that would be a spoiler, so we won’t divulge it, but it is their mutual ability to see the other as they really are, and not as who their parents are trying to make them, that bonds them as they begin to take a more active role in shaping their own futures.

One of the interesting things about the tale is that both Kaz and Noni are people trying to live lives of integrity to their own identity. This is difficult in any person’s life, but it is all the more difficult when parents try to make you someone you are not. We see this most glaringly when Noni, a talented singer and beautiful young woman with a natural modesty, is manipulated to be overly revealing and sexualized not only by her record label but by her own mother as well. In a similar way, Kaz’s father is more concerned with a possible political career for his son than he is his happiness when he tells him that Noni is “not first lady material.”

From the Little League dad to the stage mother to the political patriarch to the pastor’s kid, these cliché relationships downplay the complexity of a parent’s ambition for their child, as it is not easy to identify or navigate. This troubling film shows how parental ambitions can have devastating effects on both the children they are so invested in and the careers they are trying to promote at all costs.

Discussion

» The natural musical talent that Noni demonstrated at the age of 9 months was a gift. How do you think a parent should help a child develop a natural gift? What is the limit to a parent’s involvement? Why do you answer as you do?

» The decision by Noni and Kaz to pursue their dreams in their own way allows them to also love who they will. Have you ever been told who you can love and who you cannot? How did you respond?

» When Kaz defended Noni from the on-stage harassment of Kid Culprit (Richard Colson Baker), he was protecting her right to her own modesty. How can we protect performers from being manipulated or harassed into something that makes them uncomfortable but directors and audiences want it and pressure them into it?

— Cinema in Focus is a social and spiritual movie commentary. Hal Conklin is a former mayor of Santa Barbara and Denny Wayman is pastor of Free Methodist Church, 1435 Cliff Drive. For more reviews, visit www.cinemainfocus.com, or follow them on Twitter: @CinemaInFocus. The opinions expressed are their own.

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