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Andrew Dosunmu Beauty Review

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Beauty | Review

Beauty | Review

It’s Not Right, But It’s Okay: Dosunmu Finds Fame is a Heartbreak Hotel in Familiar Melodrama

Andrew Dosunmu Beauty ReviewDestined to be the oddest entry in Andrew Dosunmu’s filmography is his fourth feature, Beauty, a film initially vaguely described as being about a young Black woman’s overnight rise to fame after signing a recording contract designed to make her a chart crossing icon. The second narrative feature penned by the multifaceted Lena Waithe (Queen and Slim, 2018) quickly reveals itself to be a somewhat blatant piece of Whitney Houston fan fiction reorganized into a A Star is Born trajectory, outfitted with all the unmistakable window dressings of a woman whose sexuality was blatantly repressed and whose racial identity was infamously obscured prior to a myriad of issues which would compromise her career and eventually her life.

Although technically not a Whitney Houston film, instead existing like some parallel universe approximation where the singer has been reimagined as the titular woman named Beauty, it’s impossible not to compare this fantasy with a reality saturated in the contemporary cultural zeitgeist, which tends to distract. An intimate odyssey about someone trying to control the voice everyone else intends to profit by, it’s an arthouse reclamation of sorts, and is bolstered by Dosunmu’s keen photographic aptitude for beautiful, haunting imagery.

Beauty (Gracie Marie Bradley) has been groomed by her talented mother (Niecy Nash) to follow in her footsteps as a singer. When a famous record executive (Sharon Stone) comes calling with a life changing recording contract, Beauty’s mother isn’t sure her daughter’s quite ready, but her father (Giancarlo Esposito) sees dollar signs. Home life has become a bit contentious, with internal alliances built around Beauty’s friendship/romance with her best friend Jasmine (Aleyse Shannon). Her older half brother Cain (Micheal Ward) does her father’s malevolent bidding while her brother Abel (Kyle Bary) proves to be more sympathetic. Browbeaten into signing the contract, Beauty finds herself liberated in New York while she records her album, leading up to her introduction to the public with a performance on the Irv Merlin show.

A major element missing from Beauty could arguably be the zest of momentousness for its rising star, though Dosunmu has built a significant filmography by focusing on the off center and the in-between. But the intimate silences evidenced in his Mother of George (2013) and Where is Kyra? (2017) are techniques tending to flatline here. Although Bradley surely lives up to her name, Waithe’s script is laser focused on her character as an object acted upon, to the degree where Beauty’s mild acts of agency are so sudden and so convenient these moments play like soap opera.

The slow burn chemistry built with Aleyse Shannon’s Jasmine, a Robyn Crawford composite, feels demeaned by the bizarre introduction of high-rise neighbor Sammy (Joey Bada$$), the spectre of Bobbie Brown. Shannon, who plays a similar threat to the heteropatriarchy in Sophia Takal’s Black Christmas (2019) remake, eventually feels as neutered as Beauty (the odd attempts of Beauty’s family trying to sabotage their relationship also feels a bit camp). Too many on-the-nose details, such as a gay bar named Sinners, or brothers named Cain and Abel (which feels like the equivalent of a Christian family desiring to name their kids Satan or Lucifer) also distract.

But for its strengths, a complex portrayal by Niecy Nash and a malignant Giancarlo Esposito are effective, even when their characterizations suggest she wouldn’t possibly absorb her husband’s abuses with such cavalier repose. Together, they sail us through the first hour. A captivating Sharon Stone, fulfilling the Clive Davis component, walks away with all the best scenes, somewhere along the lines of her Iris Burton in The Disaster Artist (2017).

Beautifully shot by Benoit Delhomme, both for its handsome exterior and interior sequences (even just a glimpse of the fur-lined Stone laughing frivolously with Bradley feels luscious), there’s a palpable sense of early 80s New York. Snippets of performances from Mahalia Jackson, Patti LaBelle, Judy Garland, Donna Summer, and an opening quote from Sarah Vaughan, suggest the pantheon of women who paved the way for Beauty/Whitney, and provide a sweet template of homage.

Not unlike how Kim Stanley arguably read as a composite of Marilyn Monroe in The Goddess (1958), Dosunmu’s Beauty will be inextricably linked to Whitney Houston. Conveniently sidestepping vocal comparisons by foregoing any snippets of Beauty’s singing ability (which may nag some but is otherwise a smart workaround, and allows us to focus on the actors performances, particularly the expressive Nash, in these moments), it’s an odd showcase for the initially liberating and eventually corrupting power of fame, whether or not one is familiar with the not-so-subtle subtexts.

★★½/☆☆☆☆☆

Los Angeles based Nicholas Bell is IONCINEMA.com's Chief Film Critic and covers film festivals such as Sundance, Berlin, Cannes and TIFF. He is part of the critic groups on Rotten Tomatoes, The Los Angeles Film Critics Association (LAFCA), the Online Film Critics Society (OFCS) and GALECA. His top 3 for 2021: France (Bruno Dumont), Passing (Rebecca Hall) and Nightmare Alley (Guillermo Del Toro). He was a jury member at the 2019 Cleveland International Film Festival.

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