Thursday, September 26, 2019

Film Review: Blinded By The Light

Sexuality/Nudity Acceptable
Violence Acceptable 
Vulgarity Acceptable
Anti-Catholic Philosophy Acceptable

Sometimes, especially in your teens, music reaches you in a way that is hard to describe.  Your emotions are running in every direction and you have a hard time expressing them or even understanding them.  But then there is a song or a singer that seems to capture exactly what you are feeling and saying it better than you could.

That is the experience that is captured in Blinded By The Light.

Javed (Viveik Kalra) is the son of a Pakistani immigrant in 1980's England.  He is constantly surrounded by prejudice while at the same time feeling the pressures from his traditional Pakistani home.  His father Malik (Kulvinder Ghir) pushes his lower-middle class family hard.  All money they earn comes to him so that he can pay the bills.  He wants his son to pursue practical careers to make money to help the family.  But Javed wants to be a writer.  The pressure continues to build as his father loses his job, his relationship with his best friend Matt (Dean-Charles Chapman) becomes strained, and he falls for his classmate activist Eliza (Nell Williams).  Feeling torn apart, he begins listening to a cassette tape given to him by his classmate Roops (Aaron Phagura) that contains the songs of Bruce Springsteen.  Javed has an almost ecstatic experience listening and so he begins to build his whole life on the worldview presented by Springsteen's music.

Blinded By The Light does a great number of things very well.  It's greatest strength is that it accurately captures that time in a young person's life that so many of us experience.  There are moments of incredible, overwhelming exhilaration, like when we see Javed, Roops, and Eliza dashing through the streets to "Born to Run."  There are the moments when an adult encourages you to nurture your talents, as when Javed's teacher, Ms. Clay (Hayley Atwell), pushes him to sharpen his writing.  But the movie is not an overly sweetened view of teen life.  Writers Paul Mayeda Berges, Gurinder Chadha, and Sarfraz Manzoor are careful to mostly avoid oversimplifying the characters.  Adolescents tend to be horribly self-centered, and Javed is no exception.  The movie does an amazing job of showing you Malik's struggle and humiliation as he is unable to be the provider that he knows he should be.  It is true that he is standing in the way of Javed's dream, but Javed is too selfish to see how much his family is struggling.  There is a scene in the movie where Javed sneaks out of his sister's wedding to buy Springsteen tickets.  This moment is not without consequence as Javed puts his own needs ahead of his family.  There are times when you want to be Javed, experiencing the thrills of life.  There are times you want to slap Javed because he is behaving like an entitled punk.  All of the characters are flawed, but rather than repelling, it makes them more relatable.

The performances are very good.  Kalra carries the movie on his shoulders and he is likable enough.  He and Williams have good chemistry throughout.  The real winner is Ghir, whose performance as the father should not be overlooked.  He knows that he is asking too much of his family and there is the constant presence of shame in his eyes that all too understandable.  It is the shame that any husband or father feels when they feel in their bones that they have failed somehow in the most fundamental way.

Director Gurinder Chadha does a perfectly fine job with the movie.  As I said, there are moments of insight and elation.  He has some incredibly creative ways of incorporating Springsteen's lyrics visually into the narrative.  But the movie never really reaches greatness.  Everything about it is good.  It just never soars too high.

One of the things that acts as an anchor is how the movie very oddly political.  All of the troubles that the family is experiencing are explicitly and repeatedly laid at the feet of Margret Thatcher.  I am not an expert on this time and place in history, but I have the feeling that things are much more complicated than the movie lets on.  Also, anyone who does not share the activism politics of Eliza is painted as a right-wing bigot.  In and of itself, this isn't really a problem, but the movie goes out of its way to co-mingle all right-of-center politics with hateful white supremacy.  These moments take you out of the movie, which is a shame because the film gets so many other things right.

Blinded By The Light is a fine and dare-I-say delightful film that has some real moments of insight, nuance, and heart.  While it didn't reach levels of greatness for me, I could see how someone could watch this movie and have it speak to them the way Springsteen has to people over the years.

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