Befitting its title, “Beauty” opens looking lovely, even if much of what transpires in this story of a Black pop star set to ink a record deal will be ugly. Played by Gracie Marie Bradley, Beauty stands in front of a microphone in a recording studio. This close-up image will be repeated several times, challenging timeline expectations by looping what will be with what is.
In this lilting, lyrical work, the director Andrew Dosunmu and the writer Lena Waithe mine, mourn and tease the Whitney Houston story. Consider “Beauty” an elegy with an edge, one that touches on faith and financials, love and condemnation.
Giancarlo Esposito plays Beauty’s malefic father and Niecy Nash is her vocally exacting mother. Sharon Stone leans into her Mephistophelian role as record exec. “God was showing off a little when he created her,” she tells the TV talk show host Irv Merlin (James Urbaniak). Any doubts about the movie’s interests in religious sanctimony and patriarchal cruelties are dispelled in a scene in which dad pits Beauty’s brothers, Abel (Kyle Bary) and Cain (Micheal Ward) against each other.
Like Irv’s name, other coy gestures suggest proximity to Houston’s saga while end-running biopic issues. Yet, the movie remains intriguingly withholding. Will we hear Beauty sing? Will she and her romantic friend Jasmine (Aleyse Shannon) finally “go there”? When the two dance to the Force M.D.’s slow-jam gem “Tender Love,” it’s romance not sex that gets its close-up. Instead of an evasion, this feels like respect: the filmmakers honoring but not naming what the actual star so clearly evoked here never acknowledged.