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 artist being torn her between career and her family, scrambling to find a balance between her own ambition and the demands of the people closest to her. 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.
Yet 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. Her mother (Niecy Nash) is a gifted performer who has spent her life singing backup, never daring to reach for stardom herself. She knows how extraordinarily talented her daughter is, and is trying to guide her properly, though her envy sometimes muddies 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.
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. This is a device with a capital D, a style choice that comes to feel 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 Beauty ends before it has really dug into anything of consequence. Its heroine, whom we know is headed for trouble, is left stranded in the middle of 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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