But Mbatha-Raw isn't listening to the tinny music around her in Lights. She's too busy composing a symphony with her performance.
As Noni, a pop star who wants her voice to be heard, Mbatha-Raw shows incredible range. She sells the portrait of a modern-day sensation beautifully in press appearances and in the video for her song "Masterpiece." (Take a second to watch and listen below—it's spectacular.) She also sells Noni's inner struggle, her difficult relationship with her mother (played by an also great Minnie Driver), and her conflicted feelings about her savior and lover, Kaz (Parker). Most of all, she pulls all these different notes together into one woman. Her performance isn't just dextrous; it's cohesive. Ordinarily, such an achievement would be inspiring awards talk. And sure, Mbatha-Raw has a chance—she did just get nominated for a Gotham Award. But unfortunately, Lights just doesn't have the right pedigree—it's hard to imagine a film that opens at the Billboard Music Awards would be to the Academy's taste. Which is a shame, because Mbatha-Raw's electric work really does deserve kudos. That said, Mbatha-Raw will probably be just fine. By overachieving in this so-so film, she seems set to follow the path of a few other successful female performers before her.Four short years ago, another actress proved herself far more capable than her film: Emma Stone in Easy A. While the movie has its fans (I'm unrepentant in being one of them), even the most generous review would admit Stone does almost all the work. She brings effort, grace, and surprising gravitas to a role that just needed a serviceable hand. The performance earned her a Golden Globe nomination in the same category as Annette Bening, Julianne Moore, and Angelina Jolie—and a well-deserved nomination at that.
Also nominated in that category was Anne Hathaway, who knows a thing or two about being better than your debut film. The Princess Diaries is cute, but as unlikely royalty, she was downright winning. Think also of Rose Byrne on FX's Damages, who brought a level head and thoughtful hand to her work for five seasons as the quality level fluctuated wildly. She had the massive task of acting against Glenn Close and still held her own.