Who is the best young actress in the movies? The obvious answer is Jennifer Lawrence, all of 24 and with a deserved Oscar to her credit for Silver Linings Playbook and a second she should have won for her supporting role in American Hustle. (She’s also the most popular, with her third Hunger Games movie, Mockingjay Part I, yet another smash.) But this year, Lawrence was given a run for her money by two others.
One is Shailene Woodley, another box-office dynamo in her early 20s, who was heartbreaking in The Fault in Our Stars and compelling in a Hunger Games knockoff called Divergent. The other is someone you likely have never heard of, though it’s possible she’s the best of the three. She’s a 31-year-old Briton with the unlikely name of Gugu Mbatha-Raw. In just the past year, she’s given two wildly different and utterly bewitching performances that suggest she has the kind of range only truly great screen actresses possess.
The first of her triumphs is available on demand through your cable box. Belle is a sumptuous costume drama about an illegitimate child of mixed race (in real life, Mbatha-Raw’s father is black, her mother white) who lives with her father’s aristocratic family in late-18th-century England, where she is both beloved and treated as an inferior. Belle is very watchable, though it is prettified and bowdlerized, and it ends like an afterschool special. But what makes it memorable is the coiled brilliance of Mbatha-Raw, whose character must maintain exquisite poise and perfect manners even as the essential existential injustice of her life becomes ever more clear to her as she grows into an adult.
The second of her triumphs is now in a few hundred theaters nationwide, so you will have to hunt for it (or keep it in mind when it hits VOD). Beyond the Lights is a sophisticated and sharp portrait of a troubled pop singer. Ignore the awful title: This remarkable piece of work, by a 45-year-old writer/director named Gina Prince-Bythewood (herself of mixed race), is a subversive stab at the workings of pop culture from deep inside, one of the best and richest portraits ever presented of the soullessness and immorality of show business.
Mbatha-Raw plays Noni, the daughter of a bitterly determined teenage mother (Minnie Driver, in a knockout performance) who has driven Noni from the London slums where she was raised to the verge of superstardom. Noni begins the movie as a 12-year-old, singing a soulful Nina Simone song at a talent contest where she happily places second; her mother insists she throw the trophy away because she didn’t win.
Flash forward 15 years, and Noni is winning a Billboard Music Award for the song she has cut with her boyfriend, a star white rapper. The first we see of the adult Noni is her gyrating on a bed in a music video, her surreally fit body moving in time to the utterly generic music and lyrics she is singing. The awards ceremony is the most important night of her life, and she caps it off by entering her hotel room alone and climbing onto the railing of its balcony, ready to hurl herself to the street.
She is saved by a young and equally attractive off-duty cop (Nate Parker), who is working as her security for the evening. He is appalled by the way her mother and her record label and everyone else are determined to cast her suicide attempt as merely an act of drunken excess. Noni isn’t explosive, or incendiary, or bipolar. She’s mostly not there, walking through her own life in a daze, her mother’s perfectly realized image of a contemporary sexual fantasy in the Beyoncé-Rihanna-Nicki Minaj manner.
And that is what is so extraordinary about Beyond the Lights. Prince-Bythewood is a surprisingly subtle filmmaker; she doesn’t hammer away at the soul-crushing effect of converting a living person into an object of masturbatory desire. But as the movie goes on, it’s clear that what we are seeing in the making of Noni’s superstardom is a journey into a kind of hell from which she has every reason to seek a desperate escape.
Noni and the cop begin a touching and fiery romance of a classic Holly-wood type that is all but gone from the contemporary cinema—gorgeous people with real chemistry in beautiful settings, the kind of thing that made people fall in love with moviegoing in the first place and that you barely ever see onscreen anymore. Noni begins to emerge from her fog and into real life, with real wants and real needs and real feelings—and real, unextended, unironed, curly hair. The movie is too long, and the love affair a little too attenuated, but Beyond the Lights works beautifully in making you care about the last person on earth you’d ever think you’d give a fig for.