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I ain’t a boy, no I’m a man – ‘Blinded by the Light’

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A young person’s outlet for self-discovery can take many forms. One never knows what outside influence will inspire a whole new outlook and a whole new path. Sometimes, those influences make perfect sense. Other times, they are more of a surprise.

“Blinded by the Light” gives us the latter.

The film, based on a true story, explores the life of a young Pakistani teen in Thatcher-era Great Britain. He’s left to deal with the realities of life in that place and time – economic unrest, anti-immigrant prejudices, cultural expectations – while struggling with finding his own place. He wants to be his own person, but he’s not even sure what that means.

Until, that is, he hears the music of Bruce Springsteen.

Javed (Viveik Kalra, TV’s “Next of Kin”) is a Pakistani teenager living in the English town of Luton in 1987. His father Malik (Kulvinder Ghir, “The Queen’s Corgi”) has very specific ideas about how Javed should move through the world – quiet, with his head down and his mouth shut. Everyone in the family works to contribute to the household.

But what Javed really wants to do is to write.

Ever since he was a boy, Javed has kept a journal. And from that journaling, his love for writing grew. He writes reams of poems and lyrics for the band fronted by his best friend Matt (Dean-Charles Chapman, “The Commuter”). But he’s reluctant to share too much, fearful of what it might mean to make himself so vulnerable.

But when a new friend named Roops (Aaron Phagura in his feature debut) introduces Javed to the music of Bruce Springsteen, his whole worldview changes. Somehow, this working-class guy from New Jersey has captured precisely how Javed feels about the world and his place in it. Javed quickly becomes obsessed, with his love for the Boss infiltrating every part of his life, for better and worse.

Javed’s teacher Ms. Clay (Hayley Atwell, “Avengers: Endgame”) sees something in him and encourages him to keep pursuing his dream of being a writer. He even finds a kindred spirit named Eliza (Nell Williams, “London Town”) who becomes his friend and then something more.

However, secrets only stay secret so long. Eventually, Javed is going to be left to make some tough choices – choices that only he can make. Not his father. Not his friends. Not even Bruce Springsteen. And as it so often goes with tough choices, someone is inevitably going to get hurt.

“Blinded by the Light” is a wonderful period piece, capturing the spirit of the 1980s in ways both large and small. But it is also a sadly funny look on the nature of relationships, whether those relationships be with our family or our friends or our home or even our favorite music. Being part of the world when you’re not sure how you fit is tremendously difficult; that feeling pours forth from every scene in this film. Even the seemingly happiest moments are tinged with the slightest undercurrent of melancholy, a sense of waiting for the other shoe to drop. It’s heart-hurting in the best possible way.

All of this against a backdrop of a world in turmoil. Unemployment is at record highs and a lot of angry people are directing that anger against those perceived as other. The culture is changing in ways for which some people simply aren’t prepared; Javed is far from alone in feeling lost and adrift.

Director Gurinder Chadha has a real gift for eliciting deep feelings via these sorts of narratives. The most famous example is “Bend It Like Beckham,” but these stories of searching for place are all over her filmography. It’s complex, to be sure; even the biggest laughs (and this movie has more than a few) are colored by an overarching sadness.

“Blinded by the Light” also does a great job in capturing that feeling of falling in love with music in that way only teenagers can. The music we love as teens often remains the music we love most well into our adulthood precisely because of the visceral nature of those connections. Music never means more than it does at 15, 16, 17 years old – and we get to reexperience that with Javed.

Kalra gives an exceptional performance as Javed. Vulnerable and sweet and conflicted, Javed stumbles through the world in search of himself; there’s an innocence to it that commingles with a constant ebb-and-flow defeatism, resulting in an at-times heartbreaking performance. The supporting turns are strong up and down the board – Ghir is outstanding as the traditionalist Malik, the father whose love for his son is entangled with his own beliefs and insecurities. The actors playing Javed’s peers – Williams, Phagura, Chapman – all put together impressive performances, as do the actors making up the rest of Javed’s family.

“Blinded by the Light” is a sweet, often sad movie. There’s something compelling about this story, about the purity of it all. And while it is undeniably melancholic, there’s also a wonderful sense of joie de vivre. It takes courage to be who we are – and there’s nothing wrong with needing a little push, no matter where it might come from.

[4 out of 5]

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