Blinded by the Light is an extraordinarily nice movie. There's a lot about it that could do with a substantial bit of tweaking, but all of its flaws come directly as a result of its niceness. And who could feel too very bad about that? Plenty of movies have flaws because they're cynically commercial, or simply inept; to trip over your own feet because you can't help but love your characters and express that love at warmly as possible, that's not such a bad thing. So what if it leads directly to a grossly indulgent runtime that amply exhausts its plot material and keeps going; so what if it means that it treats with a gentle light touch some topics that would be better served with a bit more guttural horror (one major character is beaten at a white power riot, and this is treated more as an embarrassment than a grotesque violation of the social contract). I mean, those things are bad, obviously. But the warm charms of the movie help obviate them, a bit.

The film is based upon events in the life of Sarfraz Manzoor, a co-writer of the script with Paul Mayeda Berges and director Gurinder Chadha. Though "events" is maybe overselling it. Manzoor is here transformed into Javed Khan (Viveik Kalra), a teenage English boy of Pakistani descent, who just wants to muddle through his unpleasant last year at a new school, where he's gone to prepare for his university exams, and stay inside his own head. But this is impossible, for two reasons. First, it's 1987, which means that life is pretty shitty for Britain's Pakistani community; the rightward shift of the nation under Prime Minister Maggie Thatcher has emboldened a great deal of anti-immigrant sentiment, some of it openly violent, and Javed can't so much as walk home from school without being chased by skinheads. Second, his father (Kulvinder Ghir) has grand plans for his only son, and those don't involve being an insular, bookish poet. In short, Javed's life sucks, both in the way that every teenager's sucks, but also in some extremely specific, personal ways. And then one day he gets a lifeline: the only other South Asian student at his school, Roops (Aaron Phagura) cryptically mentions "The Boss" as the greatest source of comfort he knows in this bleak world, and after a bit of confusion, Javed learns that he's referring to American rock icon Bruce Springsteen. Javed borrows Roops's cassette tapes of the albums Darkness on the Edge of Town and Born in the U.S.A., and within seconds of hitting "play" on the former is knocked out by how deeply the lyrics speak to his own dreams and fears. By the next day, he's become a full-on proselytizer, spreading the Good News about Springsteen's working class poetry.

And... that's the movie. I mean, that's not all the movie. But it shockingly free of, like, content. This is honestly part of its charm. Blinded by the Light is kind of good at many things, but maybe the thing it is best at is getting inside the head of an enthusiastic, giddy teenager, who has just discovered the thing that has suddenly let everything in the universe snap into place and make sense, who has just encountered the first art that genuinely makes sense to him. Chadha's direction is a perfect balance of low-key realism and blasts of pure fantasy, the latter always coming in the form of the film's musical numbers, representing Javed's sense of boundlessness as he listens to his new favorite songs. This results in some unbelievably corny nonsense: when he first listens to "The Promised Land", it's depicted as a sudden storm that erupts while klieg lights blast huge squares of light on the buildings and streets, as the lyrics stream across the world in ten-foot-tall letters. Animated lyrics happen a lot in this film, though not generally associated with climatological events. Even this isn't as deeply indulgent and corny as the fully-choreographed dance number through the streets of Luton that Javed experiences when he listens to "Born to Run".

And why not indulge? What the film is getting at is purely subjective: it's the feeling of transport that only an exuberant, impassioned teenager can truly feel or appreciate. Whatever else we can say about Blinded by the Light, we must allow that it is unabashedly sincere. It doesn't find Javed's enthusiasm ridiculous, or talk down to it as the fripperies of a kid; when he's ready to make the connection that Bruce Springsteen is not in fact Christ come down from the mountain, the film makes the connection with him, but it doesn't force it or rush it along. It treats the experience of adolescent music fandom as wholly valid. Which is, if I can go back up to the top of the review, extremely nice.

This niceness is infectious, not least because Kalra is such a thoroughly likable puppy of a leading man. The 21-year-old isn't a neophyte actor, exactly (he's done some TV work), but he's pretty damn close to it, and Chadha's wonderful hand for guiding charismatic, photogenic young people to rich and lively performances (she was, lest we forget, the main reason that we all know who Keira Knightley is now) is in full force. It's a light, breezy performance for the most part, but tinged with just enough darkness and pain (his expression of hurt when some family friends resignedly joke about the little white boys who urinate through their mail slot is a particularly striking moment) to give the character more weight than just being the focal point for a flopsy comedy about teenagerdom.

I confess that I'd have liked even a bit more darkness; the film is charming when it's about a boy falling head-over-heels for a musician and then being confused why everybody else is confused that he's so invested in a white American largely associated in Luton with Ronald Reagan's re-election campaign, but it's actually good when it's about the Pakistani experience of '80s England. The father-son relationship that only starts to muscle its way to the foreground about halfway through the film is its strongest element, a tense battle of wills between traditionalism and assimilation in which both participants are very self-consciously not talking about the white nationalist elephant in the room. Kalra and Ghir are superb at playing that relationship, and even if it has the tang of cliché, one gets the distinct feeling here that the clichés work because they're also true.

The big problem with Blinded by the Light, then, is its difficulty in focusing. The film has a lot of loose threads: the biggest one after the family story is the story of Javed's dazed courtship of (white) left-wing activist Eliza (Nell WIlliams), and the biggest one after that is the strain that Springsteen puts on Javed's lifelong friendship with (white) New Wave-loving neighbor Matt (Dean-Charles Chapman), whose band has been relying on Javed's tortured lyrics for a little bit now. Other, much smaller threads drift in for a scene or two, mostly just to add local color. Hayley Atwell shows up a few times to be excellent and overqualified for the role of Javed's writing teacher, who manages to keep all of the film's conflict and material stakes comfortably offscreen, basically popping her head in to the movie to cheerfully declare "good news, this amazing thing just happened without you putting any effort into it". Eventually, the film rattles to a stop on the back of a solid 20 minutes of scenes that basically just recite plot points at us.

It's the doom of any real-life story turned into a narrative: real life is not dramatically structured. Blinded by the Light is so besotted by the chance to hang out with Javed and listen to Bruce Springsteen with him that it doesn't really care whether anything "happens", and I guess that's fine; but it makes for a somewhat distended viewing experience, one that seems oddly easygoing and carefree for a film where violent racism hangs so heavily over the proceedings. I mean, the violent racism is there; the film isn't sugarcoating the Thatcher years for immigrant communities. But it's somehow not very important; this is much more about teen angst and small-town boredom per se, with the specifics of Luton, of Pakistani-British people, of 1987 all coloring in the margins. And by all means, it's an engaging, sweet teen angst story! But it really does feel like a little bit more shaping, and a bit more willingness to say "okay, this is what actually happened, but maybe this other thing would be better for the movie", and it could have been something truly potent, Bruce Springsteen and all.