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Gracie Marie Bradley sings in a blue-lit recording studio as the title character in Netflix’s Beauty Photo: Stephanie Meiling/Netflix

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Netflix’s faux Whitney Houston movie Beauty should have gone for broke

Lena Waithe’s attempt to honor Houston’s secret gay relationship comes across as too timid for what it’s doing

Netflix’s movie Beauty isn’t a Whitney Houston biopic — at least, not officially. The Chi creator Lena Waithe changed all the familiar names in Houston’s life to allegorical signifiers for this story about a young, Black, queer Gospel singer waiting on her ascension to stardom. The word “queer” is particularly important here, and it’s probably the primary reason this film follows the chronological events of Houston’s early life but doesn’t have her family’s backing or include her songs.

The circumstances certainly present a challenge for director Andrew Dosunmu (Mother of George). But it should also provide plenty of freedom. Filmmakers who aren’t beholden to pleasing the estate of music’s biggest female pop star should have carte blanche to take risks. Unfortunately, Waithe and Dosunmu don’t throw caution to the wind. In their hands, Beauty is a staid, soporific story that swims through shallow narrative waters.

For much of the film, Dosunmu plays a visual game of chicken. In the opening scene, Beauty (Gracie Marie Bradley) stands speechless at a mic in a recording studio. While she’s frozen there, her mind leaps back in time, through a montage that sees her at church, at a gay club, and lying romantically in the arms of Jasmine (Aleyse Shannon). Dosunmu uses that shot of Beauty in the studio as his home base. It’s the end point of her journey. The rest of the movie, told in a series of flashbacks coated in a gorgeous, golden-colored vintage patina, recalls how she arrived there.

Beauty comes from a deeply religious, fractured household. Her brothers Cain (Micheal Ward) and Abel (Kyle Bary) embody pure rage and good, respectively. Her mother is a well-known Gospel singer (Niecy Nash as a version of Cissy Houston) who never achieved the stardom she thought she deserved. Her father (Giancarlo Esposito) acts like a big shot, showing up in gold jewelry and slicked-back hair, but carries a vicious temper.

Beauty’s parents treat her as their golden child, with a voice touched by God. But they’re both deeply jealous of their children. Her mother believes herself far more talented than Beauty, and she’s suspicious about the girl’s chances for stardom. The mother’s unspoken question seems to be If I couldn’t make it, why should my daughter? Beauty’s father thought he was destined for greatness, too. Now he’s old, with handsome sons he resents and a daughter who represents his last chance at a big payday.

Waithe’s script doesn’t paint these characters beyond their most basic personal weaknesses. Nash and Esposito handle the fill-in work themselves, imbuing the people they’re playing with richer interior lives than what’s on paper. They walk with big, broad movements, and project a sense that they know more than they’re letting on.

Audiences arriving to this inspired-by-real-life story hoping for big musical numbers will leave sorely disappointed. Beauty desperately wants to become an icon. Every day, she watches Gospel legends like Mahalia Jackson and The Clark Sisters belting out cloud-touching notes on her television. Cinematographer Benoît Delhomme (At Eternity’s Gate) captures Beauty’s awe through fourth wall-breaking portraits dipped in dreamlike blue lighting.

For Dosunmu, using the footage of these legends is a savvy move, designed to inject some music into a movie that never features Beauty singing. Seriously, she doesn’t utter a single note. A later scene in the recording booth features Beauty performing, but places viewers on the wrong side of the soundproof glass, unable to hear anything. It’s a cheeky decision. But Dosunmu’s sleight of hand begins to wear thin once it becomes apparent that there’s no payoff for this withholding; not only are there no Houston songs, there are no original ones meant to communicate Beauty’s talents, either.

Beauty (Grace Marie Bradley) and Jasmine (Aleyse Shannon) stand together, staring into the camera with their arms draped over each other, in Netflix’s Beauty. Image: Netflix

Circumventing the Houston estate for this film might be a worthwhile sacrifice, given the chance to explore a queer romance. But the film edges away from being openly romantic. This is ultimately the story of Beauty and Jasmine (a facsimile of Houston’s longtime lover, Robyn Crawford), and how conforming to religion and stardom crushed their relationship. Beauty’s manager (Sharon Stone) wants to make Beauty more mainstream (translation: fit for white audiences), and suggests that not only should she wear a long, curly wig and perform standards like “Somewhere Over the Rainbow” for The Irv Merlin Show (an allusion to Houston singing “Home” from The Wiz on The Merv Griffin Show), she’d prefer that Beauty and Jasmine kept their relationship private. Beauty initially stands up for Jasmine, but little by little, she bends under the pressure.

In their private, intimate moments, the two women slow dance. Beauty comforts Jasmine in the hospital. They lie in each other’s arms at Beauty’s home. But they never kiss, apart from a couple of loving pecks on the cheek. To a point, there’s an appealing tension in their on-screen abstinence, in the way they always come close to fully physically committing themselves to each other. But Dosunmu doesn’t let their relationship evolve much. The will-they-or-won’t-they schema only works when viewers feel like on-screen stress is building toward some cathartic release. This movie never allows that weight to lift.

That could be handled in an admirable way if it felt more like a bold, deliberate narrative choice instead of just a meandering failure to go somewhere conclusive. Why opt to tell this story, then blunt the characters’ sensuality? When Sammy (Joey Bada$$ as a version of Bobby Brown) does appear, foreshadowing the end of Beauty and Jasmine’s time together, it’s difficult to feel engaged with the love that’s being lost, since Dosunmu has spent the entire movie holding it at arm’s length.

Beauty is an odd picture: a Whitney Houston biopic that can’t be a Whitney Houston biopic, leaving behind the songs and well-known names so it can tell a story that it ultimately doesn’t tell, except in bits and pieces. Waithe’s shallow writing uses such simplistic tricks that some of the dialogue sounds like it was written for her voice, not her characters. It isn’t entirely clear whose autobiography we’re seeing: Houston’s or Waithe’s? (And not in the good, personalized way, where the writer’s closeness to her subject lets her connect empathetically.) Instead, it reads like a slapdash first draft. Still, Beauty proves again why Dosunmu is such a visually affecting director, even when he’s strapped with a bad script.

Beauty is streaming on Netflix now.

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