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Born in the UK 

Blinded by the Light tries a tricky mix of crowd-pleasing and messy reality.

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  • Fox Searchlight Pictures
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What makes a crowd-pleaser? Sure, that's a loaded question, akin to asking, "What makes something funny?"—a response as individual as there are human beings. Yet it's clear that certain movies have in their DNA the desire to leave an audience smiling—and maybe even cheering—as the closing credits roll.

That should feel like the noblest of goals in this broken world—simply offering satisfying entertainment on the way to a happy ending—but it's also easy to over-complicate things. Blinded by the Light should be a crowd-pleasing slam-dunk, and for a whole lot of people it's probably going to be just that. Yet, it also feels like it's trying so hard to be a crowd-pleaser that it's not entirely sure what exactly the crowds are supposed to be pleased about.

The story is set primarily in 1987 in the English industrial town of Luton, where Javed Khan (the charming Viveik Kalra) is heading into his final year of high school. A somewhat nerdy kid who feels isolated not just by his status as the child of first-generation Pakistani immigrants, but by his fondness for writing poetry, Javed finds an unexpected muse for his life challenges when a friend turns him onto the music of Bruce Springsteen. And despite the seeming disconnect between the lives of the American rock star and a minority kid in England, Javed is inspired to pursue dreams that run contrary to the wishes of his tradition-minded father (Kulvinder Ghir).

If the bare bones of that "rebellious teen takes on traditional parents" narrative strikes you as familiar, that's because you've probably seen it many times before, including in 2002's Bend It Like Beckham by Blinded co-writer/director Gurinder Chadha. Such tales often turn the conservative parent into the obvious villain, thwarting kids who just want to live their own lives. And for a while, it looks like Chadha and her husband/co-writer Paul Mayeda Berges are going to lean into that dynamic, including having Javed fall for a white girl named Eliza (Nell Williams). Ultimately, they opt to complicate things in ways that feel authentic, but not before making sure there are arguments where we can clearly be on Javed's side, and at least one rousing applause moment.

On top of that basic framework, you've got the conventions of a movie musical—heavy on the Springsteen tunes, so think of it as a juke-Boss musical—to provide even more giddy audience response. Chadha stages several scenes with the lyrics visible on the screen, emphasizing the impact they're having on Javed with a stylish intensity. And a couple of songs turn into infectiously appealing all-out production numbers, including Javed wooing Eliza in a public marketplace to "Thunder Road," and the kids blasting "Born to Run" over the school radio station. Blinded by the Light effectively conveys the way creative work can connect with people in unexpected ways, while still respecting that such connections can come in a variety of forms, like when Javed sees his younger sister joyously dancing to traditional Pakistani music.

Blinded by the Light also wants to touch on politics, and the attempt to find the same populist energy in those sub-plots clangs uncomfortably against its simpler pleasures. The backdrop of Thatcher-era England manifests itself in the economic slowdown that costs Javed's father his job, while we see Javed and his family facing the threat of violence from the country's anti-immigrant neo-Nazi National Front. While Chadha rarely gets heavy-handed in linking the film's 1980s setting to contemporary white nationalist movements around the world—though a rumble of rueful laughter rolled through a Sundance screening audience when Javed insists to his father that in America, "nobody cares where you come from"—it's not always easy to connect a much more existential challenge for Javed to his personal and professional dreams.

That edgier content provides a tonal challenge for a movie that ultimately wants to leave you cheering for Javed's chance to follow his heart; we live in a time where it would seem almost insulting not to acknowledge the reality of anti-immigrant sentiment. But that's the tricky thing about a crowd-pleaser: People like them largely for their ability to make reality disappear for a while, and imagine a world where underdogs win with a song in their heart.

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