I’ve been on holiday the last week, and have just returned home, so I’m a bit late in writing up this review. Apologies if it seems particularly weak as a result.
Director Gina Price-Bythewood’s most recent film Beyond the Lights was fantastic and an eye-opener for me, in being a serious-minded romance film that didn’t condescend or resort to sentimentality. Looking back at her feature film debut from 15 years earlier, all the elements were in place even then, though this story takes place against a backdrop of college basketball rather than music. Both leads (Omar Epps as Quincy, and Sanaa Lathan as Monica) are adept at their respective roles, and the film tracks their friendship (and courtship) over a period of years, from childhood moving into neighbouring Los Angeles homes, to professional careers in basketball. Along the way, Prince-Bythewood adroitly tackles the way that gender influences their respective careers, and though the women’s game is no less absorbing when we see it played, it’s clearly not the money ticket that Quincy has with the NBA. The roles of their parents (particularly Quincy’s father, himself a famous basketball player, played by Dennis Haysbert; and Monica’s mother, played by Alfre Woodard) are quite central to the film, which is a coming of age of sorts, and sets out the generational difficulties rather well, as the kids must emerge from their parents’ shadows.
Director/Writer Gina Prince-Bythewood; Cinematographer Reynaldo Villalobos; Starring Sanaa Lathan, Omar Epps, Dennis Haysbert, Alfre Woodard; Length 124 minutes.
Seen at home (Netflix streaming), London, Monday 31 August 2015.
This was released at the end of last year in the US and it should by any reasonable measure have had a UK release too (after all, there’s plenty of dross which does). It’s a story in which the central character Noni and her mother (Gugu Mbatha-Raw and Minnie Driver respectively) are from Brixton, and it even has sequences set in this country. And yet it went straight to DVD, which is why the folks from the Bechdel Test Fest thankfully stepped in to give it a mere two (well-attended) cinematic screenings. The film is packed with powerful scenes that seem to be rendered out of raw emotion, not through some intensity of over-acting but just an acuity of writing on the part of director Gina Prince-Bythewood (who has sadly not been as active a filmmaker as her short but distinguished filmography suggests). That said, I’m not sure if I’m explaining its effect well. Maybe “raw emotion” is too portentous a phrase to convey how the narrative operates. It seems to tap into a wellspring of female-centred melodramatic tradition — of the artist (here a pop/R&B singer) trying to reconcile her work and public image with her private desires (towards cop and nascent politician Kaz, played by Nate Parker) — without actually quite being that. The plot synopsis could suggest some kind of Notting Hill refit, except that it’s not a comedy either. It’s a serious-minded romantic drama that treats its characters with respect, even when they don’t respect themselves. It’s also packed with some of my favourite scenes from any of this year’s films, just for their sheer straightforward punchiness, and for Mbatha-Raw’s wonderful performance, which calls on her to shed layers of protective emotional armour not in order to secure a man, but in order to find something within herself that she can be happy with. It’s quite an achievement and it deserves your time.
Director/Writer Gina Prince-Bythewood; Cinematographer Tami Reiker; Starring Gugu Mbatha-Raw, Nate Parker, Minnie Driver, Danny Glover; Length 116 minutes.
Seen at Picturehouse Central, London, Sunday 2 August 2015.