TThere are many ways to tell old stories. Beauty,Andrew Dosunmu directed the film and Lena Waithe wrote the script. It riffs upon a classic theme: a talented artist is torn between work and family. She must find the right balance between her ambitions and those of her closest friends. A scheming parent who sees his offspring as a big dollar sign, a wily manager who tries to force a burgeoning talent into the most lucrative mold, a lover who doesn’t fit easily into the plan for fame and fortune: Beauty has it all, including a winsome young star, Gracie Marie Bradley, as the Beauty of the film’s title, a woman who’s naively sure of her destiny despite all the forces holding her back.
But Beauty—set in the 1980s and bearing more than a passing resemblance to the real-life story of Whitney Houston—never quite gels. The movie’s opening introduces us to Beauty and maps out her family’s dynamic: Her father (Giancarlo Esposito) is domineering and verbally abusive toward her two brothers, but adores her—though his love for her comes with certain expectations, and a price. She is gifted and has been a backup singer all her life, but never aspiring to stardom. She is well aware of her daughter’s extraordinary talents and she is working to support her. However, her envy can sometimes cloud the message. She and Beauty’s father have had stern disagreements about the hard-as-nails manager (Sharon Stone) who’s angling to sign Beauty as a client: Beauty’s father is all for it, but her mother hesitates, fearing that her daughter might be destroyed by the system, and by fame.
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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 deterrent to Beauty’s success. Meanwhile, Jas tries to get Beauty to think for herself, urging her to get a lawyer before she signs any contract, which only fuels her father’s ire.
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Through it all Beauty is something of a ghost, a point that’s made repeatedly by Dosunmu, who treats us to many, many shots of Beauty watching taped performances of her idols—chief among them Mahalia Jackson and Ella Fitzgerald—as we see her face, rapt yet somehow featureless, reflected in the glass of the television tube. It’s a very repetitive device, with the capital “D”, and it feels rote. We never hear Beauty sing, another stylistic choice but one that does make some sense: at one point Beauty’s brassy manager, as portrayed by Stone, urges her to sing “Over the Rainbow” on her first TV appearance as a way of ingratiating herself with white audiences. 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 to most of those around her, save Jas, Beauty is more a vessel than an actual person, an idea that’s poignant if you know anything about Houston’s story and how her life was orchestrated by those 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 wrought drama about infertility—flirt with tense dramatic developments only to shrug them off without exploring them. It’s often hard to tell exactly what’s happening in a scene and why; certain characters behave in ways that are convenient to the plot but don’t wholly make sense. Dosunmu favors oblique camera angles and swimmy soft-focus views, again, perhaps, to mimic Beauty’s smudged sense of herself as a person. But BeautyThe story ends before any consequence is achieved. The heroine of the story, who we all know is in trouble, finds herself stuck in the middle her own story. When she opens her mouth to sing, no sound comes out, and she’s stuck in that cycle of voicelessness for eternity.
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