By Richard Ades
Blinded by the Light introduces us to Javed, a Pakistani-British teen who feels imprisoned by forces beyond his control. Those forces include immigrant-hating bullies and the weak economy of Margaret Thatcher’s UK in the late 1980s.
Worst of all, though, is Javed’s rigid father, who insists on dictating what his son does with his life. Dad’s pragmatic plans leave little room for Javed’s real love, writing, which he surreptitiously practices by writing poems that he shows to no one.
Then a fellow student turns Javed on to the music of Bruce Springsteen, and suddenly his outlook improves. After listening to the American rocker’s lyrical explosions of pain, anger and indomitability, he realizes he’s found a kindred spirit. With the Boss as his inspiration, he begins fighting for the kind of future he wants.
Admittedly, all this would come off as Pollyannaish and unbelievable if it were fiction. However, the fact that the film is inspired by the life of an actual person helps to transform it into an uplifting, if flawed, tale of the power of art and music.
Directed and co-written by Gurinder Chadha (Bend It Like Beckham), the flick relies heavily on Viveik Kalra’s engaging portrayal of its struggling protagonist. Other young actors also are convincing, including Dean-Charles Chapman as Matt, Javed’s best friend; and Aaron Phagura as Roops, the Sikh who introduces him to Springsteen.
On the home front, Kulvinder Ghir adds a humorous edge that prevents Malik, the father, from turning into a total villain. Especially funny is Malik’s insistence that the key to Javed’s success is to copy the behavior of his Jewish classmates—advice that Javed quickly labels “racist.”
Also strong are the female members of the cast, though they mostly play one-note supporting roles (in more ways than one). Meera Ganatra is Javed’s hard-working mother, Nikita Mehta is his sympathetic sister, and Hayley Atwell is the teacher who pushes him to develop his writing talent. As the activism-minded student Eliza, Nell Williams has a similarly limited role, chiefly serving as Javed’s love interest.
Blinded by the Light’s best moments occur early on—when it introduces us to Javed’s soul-draining environment—and late, when it wraps up its crises in a satisfying way. In between, things are a little more problematic.
When Javed first hears Springsteen songs via a Walkman cassette deck, the film superimposes the words on walls and other parts of his environment. It’s a bit gimmicky, but it gets across the impact the words have on the teen.
Quite a bit sillier are various music video-like scenes in which people run or dance around joyfully in reaction to Springsteen songs. There are also moments that are too predictable or contrived to elicit the emotional response they seek.
Fortunately, the cast turns things around at the end by sticking the landing. The result is that we’re sent out of the theater with renewed faith in life, love, the future and the genius of a certain troubadour from New Jersey.
Rating: 3½ stars (out of 5)
Blinded by the Light (PG-13) opens Aug. 16 at theaters nationwide.