Why Did I Watch It? Listening to the Blank Check podcast series on the films of Gina Prince-Bythewood
Noni is a young pop star on the verge of success. She is attractive and talented, with a particularly precocious voice, and her driven mother is determined for her to succeed. Kaz is a young policeman eyeing a political career. He is handsome and articulate, with a keenly felt desire to help people, and his driven father is determined for him to succeed. They live in different worlds, but have everything in common; of course they should get together.
In the vein of ‘Love and Basketball’, Gina Prince-Bythewood has created another romantic drama about two rising talents, who find in each other the things their professional achievements are not providing. Prince-Bythewood’s greatest strength is her ability to create believable, well rounded characters, and she has come up with one of her best in Noni. Played with real screen charisma by Gugu Mbatha-Raw, this is someone pushed into a life that she does not really want, who is now struggling to gain control over her environment. The film’s strongest ark is Noni’s desire to express herself creatively, and it artfully tracks this journey; from little more than a paid figurehead, singing other people’s songs, to an artist in her own right, performing from the heart. The ending, when she cuts loose on stage, is very uplifting.
Kaz helps her achieve her goals. He is an old fashioned, slightly dorky type, but his earnestness wins Noni over. And his distaste for the shallow glitz of show business allows Noni to look at her life critically for the first time. She has been so busy pursuing “success”, as defined by other people, especially her mother, she has not had a chance to consider what she wants herself. And when she does pause to reflect, she does not like what she sees; the film is unflinching in its criticism of the entertainment industry, depicted as a toxic, relentless environment that pushes Noni to the brink of suicide.
Not that other fields are spared. Kaz’s values, and desire to help people, leads him to run for office, which allows the film to examine American politics. And it finds that it is not that different to showbiz: Kaz hires a trendy young PR expert, who helps him curate his image, and his involvement with Noni triggers a frenzy of social media ‘opportunities’ that everyone rushes to exploit. He and Noni are really living parallel lives, in pursuit of different objectives.
While Kaz’s character suits the plot, Nate Parker’s performance is a bit stiff. And this half of the movie is much less developed, or interesting, than Noni’s half. How highly you rate the movie then, probably depends on how much you buy into their romance. Similar to L & B, Prince-Bythewood bides her time with this, patiently building the relationship dynamic; the two characters are attracted to each other straight away, but move towards each other tentatively. This approach worked for me, as it seems more true to life, and allows you to get to know the characters, while they get to know each other. But it does stand at odds with the tropes a film like this would normally lean on, and some people might find it slow.
Not quite to the level of ‘Love and Basketball’, a genuinely great film, but Prince-Bythewood is an impressive writer and director, and her films skilfully balance a number of different elements. Another interesting, nuanced effort, with a lot to think about afterwards.