Vox Lux is a fictional tale of a young pop star’s meteoric rise into a successful recording and touring career. Beyond that very loose premise, the movie has no other major factors in common with A Star Is Born, or even Neil Diamond’s The Jazz Singer. Vox Lux is a singular experience, for better and occasionally worse, and it heartily stands apart from the crowd of other stories about ingénues.
The film is essentially divided into two. The first part starts in 1999, at a high school just as the day is starting. In what can only be a nod to the horrific massacre at Columbine High that same year, Celeste (Raffey Cassidy) is injured in a school shooting and barely survives. We see the long and slow path from her hospital bed to the memorial services for her classmates and teachers. Through all of this, her sister Eleanor (Stacy Martin) is right by her side and their bond is unshakable. The girls have always bonded through their shared love of music, and Celeste chooses to sing her feelings through an original song at the service. With all of the news crews present, and the emerging use of the internet and fast communication, Celeste goes viral before “viral” was a thing. She and Eleanor are soon whisked away to Sweden by Celeste’s new manager (Jude Law) to record an album and shape Celeste into the pop star she is now destined to become.
The second portion of the film is triggered by a shooting as well. In 2017, mass shootings and terrorism are sadly much more common, but this one is different. This shooting takes place at a beach resort, half a world away from Staten Island, which is where Celeste (now played by Natalie Portman) is planning on having a massive hometown concert to celebrate her stupendous musical career. However, this particular shooting is important to Celeste because the gunmen are wearing masks that mimic costumes from one of her videos. There is much discussion of how to handle this, and whether or not the show should go on at all.
Rather than being topical or exploitative, the shootings, and violence in general, are presented as a new thread through the fabric of our society. After 1999, innocence is lost, and this new impetus of art and stardom is now our status quo.
Portland is dynamic in her characterization of Celeste. The years have not been kind to her, and her discussed drug and alcohol abuse, along with lingering PTSD from high school, are apparent not only in the dialogue, but in every look Celeste throws and every millisecond that she cannot sit still. She is never not talking or not fiddling with her hair or her hands. It’s impossible to look away from her because she’s always doing something.
Beyond Portman’s knowingly frenetic performance, certain other unusual intentions are included in this bright and loud second half of Vox Lux – notably, the casting of Celeste’s daughter. Cassidy is back, playing her own child as a grumpy and neglected teen. The actress shows here that she’s able to embody two wildly different characters in the same film, often sharing scenes with her now aunt Eleanor and her mom’s music manager.
The second unusual and borderline distracting facet of this portion of the film is the camera’s movement, most notably behind characters. Celeste is always on the move, but the camera is rarely in front of her. We’re always one step behind, trailing all of the good action and the wildly emoting star. After this framing consistency emerges early in the latter section of the movie, it becomes clear that it’s being used as a way to set itself apart visually and thematically from your typical musical profile.
Certain to be a polarizing cinematic experience, Vox Lux is not easy or accessible. Just like both versions of Celeste, the movie provides a lot to like and a little to frustrate. Portman’s potent performance and other filmmaking quirks make for a magnetic film that’s anything but lazy.