The notable name tied to Netflix movie Beauty is the multitalented Lena Waithe, whose notable credits are really starting to pile up: Actress in Ready Player One and Bad Hair, writer of Queen and Slim, writer and actress in Master of None, producer of The 40-Year-Old Version and Dear White People (the movie), and creator of The Chi and Twenties. Beauty is her latest screenplay, the story of a young woman on the cusp of pop stardom, which sure seems inspired by Whitney Houston’s early career, even if it’s not stated outright. So it’s not a full-blown Whitney biopic – that’s on the books for Dec. 2022, titled I Wanna Dance with Somebody – but it ultimately may be more notable for introducing us to its star, newcomer Gracie Marie Bradley, who gives hints of greatness in an otherwise slightly frustrating film.
BEAUTY: STREAM IT OR SKIP IT?
The Gist: We open on an artsy montage: Beauty (Bradley) in front of a microphone in a recording studio, performing on stage, in moments of sweet intimacy with her girlfriend Jasmine (Aleyse Shannon). We don’t hear her sing. The movie settles in her bedroom, where she and Jasmine talk about someday experiencing “freedom.” Beauty’s brother Abel (Kyle Bary) climbs through the window and sparks up a joint. Her mother (Niecy Nash) readies dinner downstairs. Half-brother Cain (Micheal Ward) unpacks suitcases from the car, because their father (Giancarlo Esposito) has just returned from a trip.
Everyone sits down for a meal that reveals multiple layers of dysfunction. Father runs the show cruelly and abusively. Mother aspired to be a great singer but never became more than a backup; she cracks the whip on Beauty for six hours of practice every day. Abel is kind. Cain is nasty. (Will the brothers get in a fight? No spoilers here, pal.) Only Abel seems willing to fully embrace the idea of Jasmine being Beauty’s partner and lover. Mother preaches the church’s words on man and wife becoming one flesh, but only Jasmine has the guts to imply Father’s infidelity. Her words are met with chilly silence. We get shots of Mother coaching Beauty in church. We see Beauty again in that recording studio. But we still don’t hear her sing.
From contextual details, one gleans that it’s the early 1980s, and Beauty is about 20 years old, give or take a year. The doorbell rings, and in walks a white woman (Sharon Stone). In the credits, she’s dubbed only “Colonizer.” She has a contract. Record label, management, either or both, it doesn’t matter. Father has negotiated the contract, and when Beauty suggests she get a lawyer to look at it, he sees that as an affront to his fatherhood and manhood: “After all I’ve done for you, this is how you repay me?” She signs it. Where does Jasmine fit into this? Not sure she does, since others have control of Beauty, who’s torn between the piece of her heart that belongs to Jasmine, and the piece holding her aspirations. All those shots of her in a recording studio? They’ve been flash-forwards. We still haven’t heard her sing, and we won’t.
Performance Worth Watching: Bradley shows considerable screen presence, but never gets an opportunity to exhibit more than potential – there’s not enough meat on this screenplay bone.
Memorable Dialogue: Colonizer: “If you wanna be a star, you’re gonna have to wear a mask.”
Sex and Skin: None.
Our Take: We never hear Beauty sing, and that seems to be the point. Beauty opens with a quote from Sarah Vaughan: “When I sing, trouble can sit right on my shoulder and I don’t even notice.” The movie is about Beauty’s trouble. It’s always there, in her romance, her family, her budding career. Waite frames the story as a morality play – nonspecific setting, characters defined by their names (Beauty, Cain, Abel, Father, Mother, Colonizer), a stifling seriousness. It’s an unconventional approach to a familiar story about an aspiring young talent who’s forced to compromise too much of herself for a shot at stardom.
It’s an experiment that doesn’t quite work, an allegory for obvious ideas. It comes off dramatically stiff and overwrought, leaving us with fleeting impressions but not much in the way of solid characters and emotions. Of course the prejudices Beauty faces are upsetting – her father and Cain treat Jasmine with disdain, and the calculating Colonizer urges her to straighten her hair and use “proper English” during media interviews. Of course we wish her father was less greedy (cue a nasty patriarchal Esposito speech), and her mother’s overprotective instincts weren’t rooted in envy (cue Nash’s furrowed brow). Of course Beauty should be able to be her whole self and chase her dreams. Of course we wish she, and we, lived in a kinder, more just world. This is where the movie paints itself into a corner, rendering its protagonist an empty cipher to fit the morality-play conceit. We never get to know her beyond the film’s cliched melodramatic overtures, and we find ourselves rooting for principles – love, equality, fairness – instead of people. That’s not where we should be.
Our Call: SKIP IT. Again: We never hear Beauty sing. Interesting decision; could’ve worked with better execution, and maybe another pass at the script.
John Serba is a freelance writer and film critic based in Grand Rapids, Michigan. Read more of his work at johnserbaatlarge.com.
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