The “rags to riches” story is one that has been done more times than we can count. Just this year, we’ve had A Star is Born and Bohemian Rhapsody to showcase the consequences of international stardom. Now, we have Vox Lux, Brady Corbet’s second feature, to illustrate the rise of a young girl’s fame through tragic means.
Celeste (Raffey Cassidy) is just a normal 14-year-old girl until a tragic school shooting leaves all of her classmates dead and her with a spinal injury (and even though it’s only two to three minutes long, it is quite graphic). While in the hospital, she and her older sister Eleanor (Stacy Martin) write a song for her to sing at the vigil. It’s during this tender moment that she’s noticed by a music manager (Jude Law), who whisks her away from her innocent life into a world full of sex, drugs, and glitter pop hits.
Vox Lux attempts at being an insightful look into the underworld of fame but comes out as a hollow and soulless character study. The use of a narrator (voiced by the ever seductive Willem Dafoe) speeds up the events in Celeste’s life, only giving us glimpses of her development. He provides social and political commentary about how Celeste matured as the nation experienced terrorism. She was a prisoner of “a gaudy and unlivable present,” he says at one point.
Its mixture of satire and criticisms on the industry may be a little on the nose at times but it’s Celeste’s dialogue that makes the scenes deliver. “I don’t want people to think too much. I just want them to feel good,” she says to a (much older) man who’s passed out on top of her. She then talks about a reoccurring dream where she’s in a never-ending tunnel that likely leads to a bad place, but her vision of music makes it all go away. It’s a powerful scene that illustrates a naive, young girl going coping with her traumatic experiences and having to grow up too fast.
However, that tone immediately shifts in the second half when Natalie Portman finally makes her appearance as a 31-year-old Celeste who’s trying to repair her reputation from multiple scandals. She lashes out journalists, has a drinking problem, and tries to give her teenage daughter (also played by Cassidy) “motherly” advice. Portman doesn’t have much to do here except put on a hideous Long Island accent and act neurotic at every turn. If she was doing her SNL rap skit, then she might have fit in, but in a film that tries to be a soul-searching character piece, she stands out like a sore thumb.
But regardless of the accent, the second hour struggles to find its footing in its telling of Celeste’s story. It’s just the day in the life of Celeste framed like an MTV special. She’s so different from the teenage girl that we knew from the start (with little character growth happening on screen), that it’s hard to sympathize or identify with her. It’s possible that that was what Corbet was getting at, but the abrupt transition doesn’t do it any favors.
The film ends with a glimpse of her concert, a spectacle in of itself. Sia’s bubblegum pop songs complement the star-filled setting and Celeste’s twinkling outfits. But when the credits hit you can’t help but feel unsatisfied. Corbet is certainly a talent in the making, but his attempt to tackle multiple themes in one film did him a disservice. But then again, with A Star is Born on everyone’s mind, the odds were never in his favor.