there are a million ways to tell even very old stories. Beauty, directed by Andrew Dosunmu and written by Lena Waithe, riffs on a classic theme, the idea of a gifted performer who finds her torn between career and her family, struggling to balance her own ambition and the demands of the people closest to her. A cunning parent who sees his progeny as a big dollar sign, a cunning manager who tries to force a budding talent into the most lucrative mold, a lover who doesn’t easily fit the plan for fame and fortune: Beauty has it all, including an endearing young star, Gracie Marie Bradley, as the beauty of the film’s title, a woman who is naively certain of her fate despite all the forces that hold her back.
Yet Beauty– is set in the 1980s and bears more than a passing resemblance to the real-life Whitney Houston story – never quite gels. The opening of the film introduces us to Beauty and charts the dynamics of her family: her father (Giancarlo Esposito) is domineering and verbally abusive towards her two brothers, but adores her – although his love for her has certain expectations and a price. entails. Her mother (Niecy Nash) is a gifted performer who has sung backup all her life, never daring to reach for stardom herself. She knows how exceptionally talented her daughter is and tries to guide her well, although her jealousy sometimes clouds the message. She and Beauty’s father have heated up a fight over the hard-nosed manager (Sharon Stone) who wants to sign Beauty as a client: Beauty’s father is all for it, but her mother hesitates, fearing her daughter could be destroyed by the system, and by fame.
Sign up for More in the story† TIME’s weekly entertainment newsletter, to get the context you need for the pop culture you love.
There’s another complication: Beauty is deeply in love with Jas (Aleyse Shannon), and the two want to build a life together. But Beauty’s father hates Jas and sees her as a hindrance to Beauty’s success. Meanwhile, Jas tries to make Beauty think and urges her to hire a lawyer before signing a contract, which only fuels her father’s wrath.
Read more reviews of Stephanie Zachareki
Through it all, beauty is something of a ghost, a point repeatedly made by Dosunmu, who treats us to many, many photos of Beauty looking at recorded performances of her idols – the most important among them Mahalia Jackson and Ella Fitzgerald – while we see her face, elated yet somehow characterless, reflected in the glass of the television tube. This is a device with a capital D, a style choice that feels right. We never hear Beauty sing, another stylistic choice but one that makes sense: At one point, Beauty’s brassy manager, as portrayed by Stone, urges her to sing “Over the Rainbow” during her first TV appearance as a way to indulge oneself with white crowd. She also admonishes Beauty to keep her relationship with Jas in the background, seeing it as a major stumbling block on Beauty’s road to stardom.
The point is that for most people around her, except for Coat, Beauty is more of a vessel than a real person, an idea that is poignant when you know anything about Houston’s story and how her life was orchestrated by the people around her. at the expense of her own happiness. But Waithe and Dosunmu – the filmmaker behind the 2013 indie film mother of George, a beautifully crafted drama about infertility – flirt with exciting dramatic developments only to shake them off without examining them. It is often difficult to say exactly what is happening in a scene and why; certain characters behave in a way that fits the plot, but doesn’t quite make sense. Dosunmu prefers angled camera angles and smooth soft-focus views, perhaps again to mimic Beauty’s blotchy sense of herself as a person. But Beauty ends before it’s really dug into anything of significance. Her heroine, who we know is headed for trouble, gets stranded in the middle of her own story. When she opens her mouth to sing, no sound comes out and she is forever stuck in that cycle of voicelessness.
More must-read stories from TIME