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Film review: Blinded by the light

BRENDAN McMANUS  ::  Film review of Blinded by the light    

This is a little gem of a film that tackles teenage angst, the immigrant experience in England, a topical Brexit theme, and family relationships. It helps if you are a fan of Bruce Springsteen, as I am, but the film is much more than a mere tribute.

At its heart is the story of a Pakistani teenager, Javed, growing up in Thatcher’s Britain of the 80s coping with the effects of unemployment on his family (his dad is laid off) and discrimination; the National Front features prominently. We are given an insight into the hostile environment of anti immigrant racism, pretty blatant at times, and the struggle to survive.

The clever thing is that the film avoids the simplistic temptation to have Javed, the central character, abandon his own Pakistani culture and embrace ‘Britishness’, and threads a fine line between inculturation and preserving one’s identity. Without creating a spoiler, the final climatic ‘school prize giving’ scene holds all these elements in tension without a simplistic solution.

The escape for the teenager is through the music of Bruce Springsteen, which through the creative presentation of lyrics onscreen, illustrates how these speak to his particular situation and to his heart. Some of the scenes are undoubtedly corny but it carries you along, giving courage and direction to his life and choices.

Those who despair of teenagers escaping into music and hiding behind headphones will be surprised to see that here the drive is to engage with the world, act in a different way and wake up to the fact that he has responsibility,, choices and options. Inevitably this brings him into conflict with his family and specifically his father, brilliantly played by Kulvinder Ghir who captures the agony of unemployment and immigrant dislocation. In some ways the film is about the central father-son relationship, the son writes a poem of this name, with all its struggles, failures and hard earned reconciliation.

It is precisely this latter point however, that the film triumphs on. Javed’s best friend challenges him not to be so selfish in his actions (prioritising a concert over all else; the default teenager solution) and Javed has to come to terms with the complexity of his immigrant identity and the ‘limited’ love of his father. In a sense it is a ‘Prodigal Son’ story that has an outward journey of escaping from home and a ‘return’ that has acceptance of true identity (a ‘beloved son’) and a familial reconciliation at its heart.

For me, I can clearly see Springsteen’s ‘Catholic’ sensibility being translated into the teenager’s ‘struggling to be moral’ actions. Springsteen names well the disillusionment and alienation of growing up in Western society, but the story doesn’t end there. The concepts of the Promised Land, ‘journey’, deepest desires, sin and redemption feature prominently in the film through the lyrics but also in the life and decisions of Javed. It is based on a real life story that gives this sometimes schmaltzy ‘musical’ narrative credibility.

There is conflict of values and cultures certainly, but there is an underlying drive for self realisation, acceptance of identity and healing of relationships. I would call it ‘Finding God in the Mess’, believing that there is meaning and direction in life that has to be wrestled with in order to come to human moral solutions.