At the beginning of “Beyond the Lights,” a new romance from Gina Prince-Bythewood that arrives in theaters today, a little girl (India Jean-Jacques) fails to capture the top prize in a singing competition. “Chuck it. Throw it away,” her tense mother, Macy Jean (Minnie Driver), tells her of her new trophy on their way out of the auditorium. “You want to be a runner-up? You want to be a winner.”
That little girl grows up to be a Rihanna-style pop superstar so famous that she is recognizable just by her first name, Noni (Gugu Mbatha-Raw). The success that Macy Jean wanted so badly for Noni has not exactly blunted the mother’s edge, and it certainly has not made the daughter happy. And Macy Jean is hardly the only parent who does not know how to manage a talented child in cinemas this fall, in a series of films unlikely to offer much comfort to anxious and ambitious parents.
In “Beyond the Lights,” Noni’s talent is her own, but the direction in which it is channeled is the one Macy Jean thinks will be most commercially viable. Noni strips down in music videos, shows up on the red carpet in dresses made out of nothing but chains and pretends to be in a relationship with a crude rapper to help promote their joint single.
I wish Prince-Bythewood had been more nuanced about the difference between forcing someone into this sort of performance and artists who make their sexuality their subject matter. But “Beyond the Lights” is still an effective portrait of the toll Macy Jean’s ambition takes on her daughter. And it is a sad commentary on what the entertainment industry gives up by assuming that you cannot sell a great voice and a great song without pyrotechnics (“Beyond the Lights” itself is a rebuke to the conventional Hollywood wisdom that black stars are not a draw). Macy Jean’s growing confidence as an advocate for her daughter’s talent may be a subplot, but it is one of the more interesting elements of the movie.
“Men, Women & Children,” Jason Reitman’s glum, anxious movie about the Internet released earlier this fall, has another variant on the bad stage mom in the form of Donna Clint (Judy Greer), who expands the online portfolio meant to promote her teenage daughter, Hannah (Olivia Crocicchia), to talent scouts into a modeling business, selling photos of the scantily clad girl to older men.
Unlike Macy Jean, Donna is something of an innocent, or at least very good at self-deception. She has convinced herself that the sessions are harmless, and slowly begins to realize that she might be in legal, as well as moral, trouble.
But the worst moment for Donna is the one in which she recognizes that she has diverted Hannah’s talents, such as they are, toward a pure search for attention. “That show and that Web site, that’s not what you want to do,” Donna tells her daughter. “Yes it is!” Hannah insists. She has become indifferent to the kind of work she does or the way she presents herself, as long as it nets her attention.
If there is something undeniably sour about these Bad Mommy characters and the way they sexualize their daughters, fathers fail their talented children, too, whether from passivity or an overabundance of judgment and aggression.
“Whiplash” has attracted the most attention for director Damien Chazelle’s portrait of the relationship between young drummer Andrew (Miles Teller) and his abusive teacher, Fletcher (J.K. Simmons), and the suggestion that ugly behavior helps talent develop. While Simmons gives the more pyrotechnic performance, Paul Reiser takes a sad, subdued turn as Andrew’s father, Jim.
When the movie begins, Jim and Andrew have a companionable routine of dinners and trips to the cinema. But as Andrew is drawn into Fletcher’s influence, Jim begins to lose his son. After an incident in which Fletcher encourages Andrew to put himself in danger to make a concert, Jim works with his son and the parents of another one of Fletcher’s students, who committed suicide because of the way Fletcher berated him, to have Fletcher fired.
Ultimately, though, Jim does not have an alternative vision of Andrew’s life to offer his son, though. Andrew chooses perpetual battle with his teacher over his communion with his father. Jim is a decent man. But he is not a strong enough personality to convince Andrew that he can both be an excellent drummer and a happy, balanced adult.
Jim may fail to save Andrew, but the alternative is not necessarily better. In Bill Pohlad’s excellent Brian Wilson biopic “Love & Mercy,” Murry Wilson (Bill Camp) constantly tears down his son, played as a young man by Paul Dano. Like Macy Jean, Murry has a relentlessly commercial instinct. “Do you like it, Dad?” Brian wants to know after playing his father an early cut of “God Only Knows.” “It’s not like a Beach Boys song,” Murry tells him coldly. “Your brothers are going to hate it.”