For many of us, our teenage years were defined by our angst, our desire for freedom from the lives our parents had designed for us, our need for a life beyond our small towns. It was a time when we searched for our identities, when we looked anywhere and everywhere for inspiration. It was a time of raw emotion, of barely contained anger at our limitations and unparalleled hormonal joy at newfound discoveries. Blinded by the Light is a mainline right into that adolescent mindset, where all it takes is one artistic voice to speak to us clearly and connect with us in such a way to inspire radical change. And it’s that adolescent understanding that transforms a somewhat rote, slightly bloated feel-good movie into a piece of inspiration in and of itself.
Based on a memoir by Sarfraz Manzoor (who co-wrote the screenplay with Paul Mayeda Berges and director Gurinder Chadha), Blinded by the Light masks its autobiographical nature under the guise of Javed (Viveik Kalra), a British sixteen-year-old of Pakistani descent in a small English town in 1987. He has trouble finding a girlfriend, finds himself on the receiving end of both casual and aggressive racism as fascism is on the rise in Margaret Thatcher’s Britain, and has a domineering father (Kulvinder Ghir) who seems more concerned with being right than ever stopping to listen to what Javed wants or needs. In order to cope with all these conflicting pressures on his life, Javed plans to study hard to go to university, to get away from his family and maybe turn his years of writing diaries and lyrics for his best friend (Dean-Charles Chapman) and his band into a career as a writer. But as he approaches the breaking point of his frustrations, a fellow classmate (Aaron Phagura) introduces him to a new musical artist, albeit one no longer contemporary: Bruce Springsteen. It's this one artist that transforms Javed's outlook on the world and gives him the motivation to become the kind of person he never felt he could.
On a nuts-and-bolts level, Blinded by the Light is your serviceable teen comedy. The dialogue is funny, the cast does well without exception, the 1980s production design is in your face, but no more so than the popular culture of the era itself was, and the direction and cinematography are workmanlike with occasional moments of inspired composition or kitschy flourish. As a story about a singular protagonist and his narrow perception of the world, it occasionally struggles to keep the multiple subplots of Javed’s life equally engaging and wholly significant, but Kalra’s turn as Javed is relatably likable enough to justify the film’s tangential excesses. This is the kind of story you have heard plenty of times before, in just about any teen comedy where the protagonist needs to balance the values of familial loyalty and personal expression, but it’s also effective enough at the form that it’s easy to forget the parts that feel overly familiar.
The unique spark of the film comes less from the music of Bruce Springsteen itself, though, than from the evocative feelings the film conveys through Javed. Admittedly, the film’s over-reliance on drawing parallels between Springsteen’s lyrics and the events of Javed’s life can be grating, but it’s also emblematic of how a teenager relates to art and alternately uses it as a vessel for their own ego and a machine to find empathy for others. If there’s one skill Kalra excels at as a performer, it’s staring down the barrel of a camera and letting you feel as he feels in a given moment, showing you the depths of his frustrations and the heights of his ambitions. If that were Blinded by the Light’s only trick, it would grow entirely stale, but thankfully it finds an empathetic center in an extremely nuanced performance from Kulvinder Ghir, who subtly transforms Javed’s father from borderline stereotypical domestic tyrant to a complex and conflicted human being in a manner that reflects both Javed’s more well-rounded perception of the man and his own growth in parallel to his son’s. This is Ghir’s film to steal, and he seizes the moment whenever afforded the opportunity.
The film climaxes with a monologue that feels slightly forced but no less touching for being so, and that’s about as good a summation as any for the entirety of the film itself. As a teen comedy, it’s fairly standard - charming and digestible and will surely be formative and valuable for some while the rest of us catalog it with the many other similar films we’ve already seen. But as a series of semi-autobiographical vignettes that show how artistic inspiration molds us and, by proxy, the people around us, it understands something base and pure about humanity that many films only vaguely gesture toward.