Vox Lux aka A Pop Star is Born begins in 1999 with a school shooting where young Celeste played by Raffey Cassidy (Tomorrowland, The Killing of a Sacred Deer) is badly injured, but survives. And when she performs a song she’s written with her sister at the memorial to express her feelings, it strikes a chord with the public and before you know it she’s a little pop star, despite having middling talent. The rest of the film is a meditation on our fixation with celebrity and violence and what that does to older Celeste played by Natalie Portman as she lives through it. I can see why the concept would attract a writer to hang a story on it, but unfortunately the execution of the film doesn’t ultimately support such a heavy load.
The first half of the movie is young Celeste becoming a star: learning choreography, doing music videos, getting drunk and sleeping with an older rocker. Then fast forward to the present and Celeste (Portman) is making a come-back after a horrifying act derailed her career. Her daughter (also played by Raffey Cassidy) has come to see her. She’s been raised by Celeste’s sister and clearly hasn’t had a relationship with mom. Mom is a drunk, hooked on her pain meds, and exhibits pretty much every cliche about celebrities rolled into one. And hanging around the edges of the story is her enabling manager played by Jude Law.
Sadly, the film sinks under the weight of its many contrivances. It’s punctuated by violence- the initial shooting, 9/11, and a fictional shooting where the terrorists wear masks right out of one of Celeste’s videos. There’s intermittent narration from Willem Dafoe, that doesn’t so much inform as pronounce something semi-deep, as in, “Celeste’s loss of innocence curiously mirrored that of the nation.” And from time to time there’s a sequence of sped-up clips that just feel like filler.
As much as I like Portman as an actress, the first part with Cassidy is more compelling. It’s hard to understand how that girl turned into the adult Celeste. It’s also hard to understand when she takes to the stage and performs for a long while at the end why she is even a star. The biggest problem for me though was that I just didn’t care about Celeste. And with all the great movies to see right now in theaters, I’d say skip this one.
[Mainstream Chick’s take: I’m a bit shocked at Arty’s review because I tend to agree with it – and I was so sure she would find some greater, artier reason for its being! Alas, while the film is certainly unique, I’m not sure who I’d feel comfortable recommending it to. It definitely drew me in, perhaps because the first 15 minutes was so shocking and unexpected that I was instantly invested in figuring out where it might go. Where it went – is two different directions. There’s the first half with Raffey Cassidy as teen Celeste, and the second half with Natalie Portman playing adult Celeste. Similar to Arty Chick, I think I liked the first half more. Portman is a great actress but the Staten Island accent she affects (and intentionally exaggerates for the role) was rather grating. And her Celeste is not a very likeable person. This is not your stylish, composed “Jackie” Portman. It’s more your dark and flawed “Black Swan” Portman – showcasing solid singing (rather than ballet) chops. Process that for a while. -hb]