Sofia Coppola (Somewhere, The Beguiled) often frames her characters gazing out of car windows, quiet and deep in contemplation, desperately searching for answers to their plight as the outside world carries on with its business. It’s one of her directorial calling cards, and it’s an effective way of putting us in a character’s headspace: drenched in melancholy and trapped in a metal cocoon, unable to share in the freedom and vitality just beyond the windows. In her 2003 film, Lost in Translation, that shot is employed at the beginning and it captures perfectly the ennui of Bob Harris (Bill Murray), a fading movie star deep in the throes of a midlife crisis. At the end, Coppola films him gazing out a car window again to refer to the first one and show the audience how much things have changed.
Director Akay Mason (Day of Destiny) uses the same pattern in Superstar. When the main character, Queen (played by Nancy Isime), is at a crossroads, the camera frames her from outside the car window as trees and clouds whip by. The second time it is used, her problems have been somewhat solved and she is wearing a thousand-dollar smile; Queen winds down the window and pokes her head out, enjoying the feeling of her newfound freedom. And while I thought the visual motif was brilliant, the moment ultimately fails to carry much weight for one simple reason: the story is terribly unfocused.
Nancy Isime (Kambili) plays the lead in Superstar, a collaboration between Inkblot Productions and FilmOne Entertainment that’s currently playing in cinemas across Nigeria. The movie also features Timini Egbuson (Breaded Life), Ufuoma McDermott, Eku Edewor and Deyemi Okanlawon (Swallow) in supporting roles. The story follows Queen Ejiro (Isime) who, due to her lifelong passion for acting, moves to Lagos after bagging a degree in Theatre Arts. She waits tables with a spring in her step, consumed by the hope that soon enough, she’ll send waves throughout the industry with her raw acting talent. Her boyfriend (Egbuson) and best friend (Teniola Aladese) give Queen their full support, driving her to auditions and paying for meals and whatnot.
At this point, the movie seems like it would be a story in the vein of La La Land (2016), following her journey until she finally gets her big break. Until, without warning, it becomes a romantic comedy. She meets an Assistant Director at her audition and they’re immediately taken with each other. It’s a weird meet-cute considering he was yelling at her only moments before. He tells her to go for a reality show where the next big star in entertainment would be revealed. She complies and emerges the winner. Suddenly, all her dreams have come true. How did it happen so easily for her? Simple. She’s the main character and the movie is trying to do five hundred things at once.
Then her friend releases footage of her in a suggestive position with another actress and everyone loses their minds thinking she’s a lesbian. And then her ex-boyfriend, together with her best friend, blackmails her into becoming her manager. And then the best friend leaves. And then the Assistant Director reappears in her life. Queen remains passive through this period, just letting things happen to her. Not exactly an interesting main character.
The second act was a chore to get through because every time the movie looked like it was going in one direction, it would get cold feet, fail to commit to the new idea and introduce something else. This isn’t to say that blending or bending genres is impossible. It’s just that Superstar is the kind of movie that has an idea of what it wants to say but fails to say it well as a result of throwing everything and the kitchen sink at the wall hoping that some of them would stick. At one point, it looks like we’ll see how Queen will deal with being shut out by her dying lover. Only, no, it turns out that was a misdirection too. After a montage where she attempts suicide, she goes back to him and all is fine and dandy. I could almost hear the momentum screeching to a halt.
Isime is a good actress but her performance in Superstar is marvelously helped by Eku Edewor and Deyemi Okanlawon. They’re both like Aaron and Hur, holding Isime’s role up. When they’re not on screen, she suffers; when they are, it’s little fireworks. Without those three, the movie would have been even more middling. Nancy has a very expressive face. The camera loves her, that’s for sure. All she has to do is smile a little or shed a couple of tears and it’d burst through the screen like the glow of a harsh sunrise. However, in Superstar, that quality is wasted on a story that doesn’t know what its focus is; it’s wasted by direction that fails to get us inside her head. In Eight Grade (2018), Bo Burnham uses music to do this and it works beautifully. The soundtrack is a reflection of Elsie’s mental state; the pieces are chaotic when she’s distressed and calm when she is.
There’s a real darkness to Timini’s character but after a while, his interpretation begins to feel not only repetitive but cartoonish. His character could have made do with more motivation, more than just being a villain who disappears without completing their arc. The best friend also simply disappears from the movie for good.
In Dolemite is My Name (2019), halfway through the movie, the script has the character talk to himself in a mirror and reaffirm his motivations. It’s a quiet moment of drama amid the sea of comedic scenes. In that moment, we really come to grips with why Dolemite wants to become somebody, why he hates his unambitious father who died a sharecropper, why he’s staking all he’s got on making it to the movies. Take that little scene out and the movie doesn’t work. Superstar has a couple of empty spaces where scenes like the above should be.
The movie wants, nay, needs the audience to sympathize with Queen, at least. But I felt nothing. The part where she attempts suicide lands with a dud. Why? Because I have no idea about the character’s wants or needs. What is the lie she’s telling herself that needs to be shattered? What would it matter if she loses everything? Wasn’t her success completely random?
The script fails to do Queen any justice. It wants to portray everything from the beauty of love to the despair of loss and comment on issues such as our obsession with celebrity and the terrible prevalence of workplace sexual assault. And all these are noble goals. But instead of letting scenes breathe and allowing the audience to digest what it has thrown to them, the movie jumps constantly from one life-changing event to another at supersonic speeds.
After being assaulted by a famous Nollywood producer, Queen comes home to meet her boyfriend cheating on her with her best friend. She storms out and in the next scene, she’s at the audition. How did the previous harrowing events affect her and what does she plan to do about it? The audience hasn’t a bloody clue. There’s a reason Hollywood has used the “pretty girl chops off her own hair after being sexually assaulted while sad music plays” scene to death. Cliché or not, it’s something visceral the audience can identify with and hold onto. Here’s a note on how to build character. According to Aristotle, we are what we repeatedly do. Our lives don’t only exist in the loud moments when something significant is happening to us, it’s also in the simple, mundane things we do every day when no one is looking. Who is Queen when her life isn’t blowing up? I found myself asking that question a lot.
Queen is taken into police custody mere hours after her boyfriend releases the video footage where she killed an old man with her car by accident. And then after spending only a couple days there, she is released because her fans campaigned for her and not even the Attorney General wants to prosecute Nigeria’s no. 1 sweetheart. A clear instance of a twisted system at work is supposed to be a moment of triumph. This entire plot point also turns out to be inconsequential in the end. It only affects Queen’s career by making her even more popular. How the audience is supposed to care about anything that happens after this is beyond me.
There’s an audition scene where Queen has to act as a nun who is in love with a priest and her performance made me laugh out loud. For some reason, it fell completely flat and yet that was the scene that made everyone want to meet her and crown her the next star; it says a lot of things about Nollywood’s idea of good. At the show, she gives a monologue that should have reminded me of Mia’s audition story in the third act of La La land (2016). But that one too was criminally inert. Nollywood directors are rarely able to bring out performances from actors that keep you glued to the screen (bar Sola Sobowale’s in King of Boys (2018).
The judges all unanimously make her the winner of the competition. Yes, this is our next star, they decide.
I agree. Nancy definitely has acting chops. But as to whether those are utilized well in Superstar to create something truly phenomenal, it’s a big no from me.
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- Eku Edewor and Deyemi Okanlawon are great. Put them in all the things!
- The pacing was outrageously off. Who else caught themselves thinking, “how much time has passed again?”
- I thought the montages were good. They were effective at delivering information.
Superstar is currently in cinemas and is set for Amazon Prime Video later this year.