“Vox Lux,” a sober but spicy drama written and directed by actor-turned-filmmaker Brady Corbet, is about a teenage Staten Island girl named Celeste who barely survives a horrific act of gun violence that kills others, sings an earnestly cheesy song for the memorial service, and parlays the success of that performance into a career in pop music. (The movie is aptly subtitled “A 21st-century portrait.”) Natalie Portman plays Celeste as a cynical, tough adult, in the film’s second half, when she’s staging a comeback after doing the public-flameout-then-rehab thing. In the first half, chronicling Celeste’s uneasy introduction to superstardom, she’s played by Raffey Cassidy, who returns in the second half to play Celeste’s own teenage daughter, Albertine — a nice touch of symmetry, especially when Adult Celeste begins to worry that Young Albertine’s behavior is mirroring her own at that age, which it literally does.
Though quietly intense throughout, the film never again reaches the heights of its breathtaking opening sequence. That seems intentional — when you’re catapulted to fame by a single spectacular event, everything that follows is bound to be a letdown. Corbet’s style is frequently ponderous, even “slow,” but generally compelling as he explores the factory-like process of turning Young Celeste into a star (with Jude Law as her order-barking, unnamed manager), and then the more unpredictable process of rehabilitating Adult Celeste’s public image. Celeste has fascinating flaws, among them her cruel treatment of her older sister Eleanor (Stacy Martin), all caused or exacerbated by her initial trauma and the whirlwind lifestyle that followed it. We sympathize with her, admire her, and resent her in approximately equal measure, with Portman giving a full-gusto performance that seems inspired by the foul-mouthed rap character she played twice on “Saturday Night Live.”
B (1 hr., 55 min.; )