Tales of fame and its trappings -- and the way they’re never enough to build a life -- are as old as show business itself. But sometimes the most seemingly conventional stories are the best tools for digging into knotty, everyday truths. Gina Prince-Bythewood's Beyond the Lights is a deeply satisfying crowd-pleaser about a young singer, Gugu Mbatha-Raw’s Noni, who’s on the brink of superstardom but isn-t particularly happy about it. A few days before her debut album is set to drop -- and just after she's won a Billboard award for a single she made with a scrawny, tattooed white rapper -- she tries to throw herself off her hotel balcony. The mega-handsome young cop assigned to guard her room, Nate Parker's Kaz, stops her just in time, though it takes a little doing. Noni is convinced that no one can see her; Kaz assures her he can. Their eyes meet, and their gaze becomes a kind of pact.
In that early scene, you may think you pretty much know where Beyond the Lights is headed. And you're probably right. But that doesn't negate the pleasure of getting there, and writer-director Prince-Bythewood handles the particulars smoothly. Mbatha-Raw is captivating, look-at-me sexy one moment and soberly vulnerable the next. There's always something sturdy and earthbound about her fragility, as if she knows she doesn't have to play the victim, even when she feels like one. Noni's triumph doesn't come all at once -- it takes awhile for her to stop fighting her hair and find her voice -- but her moment of epiphany strikes a resounding chord.