A feel-good triumph earning every one of its spirited emotions, "Blinded by the Light" gets to the heart of the often deeply personal power of music. An equal-parts joyous and poignant coming-of-age story based on journalist Paul Mayeda Berges' memoir "Greetings from Bury Park: Race, Religion and Rock N' Roll," the film arrives with a winning protagonist in Javed (Viveik Kalra), a Pakistani-British 16-year-old living in the blue-collar town of Luton whose discovery of Bruce Springsteen's songs inspires him to come into his own. His journey toward grabbing hold of his destiny as an aspiring writer won't come easily; his father, Malik (Kulvinder Ghir), rules the family, seemingly sucking the oxygen out of every situation while making it very clear his son's future is not up for debate. The time is 1987, and living in a Margaret Thatcher-led UK of political turmoil, racial strife, and rising unemployment only contributes to the burden Javed faces.
Springsteen may hail from New Jersey (a long way from Luton), and his experiences as a white man growing up in America are decidedly a far cry from those of a Muslim teenager living in England, but the musician's lyricsof feeling like an outsider, of taking risks in the name of following one's dreamsare universal. In short, they speak to Javed in a way nothing else ever has. In a film bursting with strong points, perhaps the best is writer-director Gurinder Chadha's (2003's "Bend It Like Beckham") and co-writers Berges and Sarfraz Manzoor's ability to show the greatness of Springsteen's poetic words. When Javed listens to him for the first time on his Walkman during a moment of longing and frustration, the songs"Dancing in the Dark," followed by "The Promised Land"come alive on the screen, the words and melodies bursting through his earphones straight into his aching soul. It's an utterly electric sequence, and plenty of others follow: a swirlingly romantic scene wherein Javed serenades classmate Eliza (Nell Williams) in the town square, and another in which he and fellow Springsteen-loving friend Roops (Aaron Phagura) play "Born to Run" over their high school loudspeaker, the inspiring tune following them and Eliza as they tear away from the building and exuberantly take to the streets.
"Blinded by the Light" isn't by design a musical in the classical sense, and yet Springsteen's music is so powerful and infectious there are times when it cannot help but turn the characters' lives into one. In lesser hands, these flights of fancy in a narrative otherwise fastened to reality might have come off as out of place or cornball, but director Chadha commits so fully to this unique stylistic vision it only complements the material. Making his feature acting debut, Viveik Kalra is an extraordinary find as Javed, his every moment believable and emotionally honest as he transforms in ways big and small from a boy lacking confidence and backbone to a young man who, for the first time, begins embracing the very things which make him most passionate. For his part, Kulvinder Ghir ensures Malik is anything but one-note; as a proud man who wants his son to succeed in life where he never got the chance but is unwilling to embrace Javed's interests and dreams, Ghir brings complexity and immediacy to their father-son relationship.
In a delicate yet astutely balanced script where just about every character proves memorable, it's difficult to pinpoint standouts. Meera Ganatra is wonderful as Javed's hard-working mother Noor, ultimately finding the strength to speak her mind when she senses Malik's stubbornness is alienating their son from them. Nell Williams gives the politically conscious Eliza a radiant spunk and intelligence; as she and Javed grow closer, their first-love romance is simply irresistible. Newcomer Nikita Mehta is a charismatic natural as Javed's understanding sister Shazia, the member of his family to which he's closest. Hayley Atwell (2018's "Christopher Robin
") perfectly plays Javed's encouraging English teacher Ms. Clay, who spots the talent in her pupil's writings that even he doesn't initially see. And Dean-Charles Chapman (2018's "The Commuter") finds plenty of genuine and moving moments as Matt, Javed's childhood friend and neighbor whom he isn't as close to as he once was.
Watching "Blinded by the Light," there is no mistaking the story comes from a personal place (indeed, it is inspired by co-scribe Paul Mayeda Berges' own life). While the beats of the lead character's arc will be familiar to anyone who has ever seen a tale about adolescence and children not seeing eye to eye with their parents, it matters none when it's done this well, with this much fire in its belly. And, if some late-in-the-proceedings events arrive rather conveniently in the timeline, the heart of Javed's path toward adulthood beats on, ever true. The film, much like Springsteen's voluminous catalogue of music, is tough, sentimental and profoundly human.