How Naomi Scott Smartens Up the Blockbuster

The 'Aladdin' and 'Charlie's Angels' star is the kind of earnest lead Hollywood needs more of.

Naomi Scott Aladdin
Disney

Welcome to Filmographies, a biweekly column for completists. Every edition brings a new actor’s resumé into focus as we learn about what makes them so compelling.


In all the resume dissections featured in Filmographies so far, this column has yet to really delve into the work of the most blockbuster-adjacent of actors (bar indie favorites who turn to the dark side). However, seeing as the iron grip of the blockbuster continues to hold strong, Hollywood should consider itself lucky to find a gem of an actress in Naomi Scott in the last couple of years.

Bringing warmth, sincerity, and genuine artfulness to the bombastic proceedings of big movies, Scott is often internationally recognized as a Disney Princess since the release of Guy Ritchie’s live-action remake of Aladdin. Looking back at the beginnings of her career, though, she has paid her dues by climbing the rungs of the entertainment industry since the late 2000s. It certainly feels fortuitous that her talents first percolated at the Mouse House, too.

Scott is an erstwhile Disney Channel star, landing her first principal role in the second season of the short-lived UK series Life Bites. A more substantial claim to fame among teen audiences would then come in Lemonade Mouth, a Disney Channel Original Movie with a notable interest in integrity and self-expression.

Granted, most of the DCOM schtick involves threading together typical coming-of-age beats into generically enjoyable narratives. These emphasize – to its primarily child audience – that being yourself is the key to success. Such concepts are familiar for a reason: they can be molded into all manner of relatable stories that speak to the changeability of teen identity. Better DCOMs work as great blank slates for burgeoning actors to begin flexing their chops in terms of character work as well.

In Lemonade Mouth, Scott is a particular standout. The film is a musical about five delinquent outcasts who form a pop band in order to find their place in high school and the world at large. Each of the main characters fulfills a specific niche of youthful disillusionment, be it family woes, conflicting personal and parental expectations, and even the nascent seedlings of social activism. By virtue of being better-written, some of these kids do so more concretely than others. And in Scott’s case, her undeniable screen presence results in the most compelling performance in the film.

Lemonade Mouth

As Mohini “Mo” Banjaree, an Indian girl struggling with the seemingly unattainable expectations of her overbearing father, Scott treads careful ground in a surprisingly resonant portrayal of Asian-American identity. She is given the widest breadth of storytelling potential in the film, as Mo’s issues span the conflicts found in blossoming forbidden romance, as well as unspoken rules of respectability in conservative families. The screenplay itself realizes these topics in very broad strokes, hinting towards – but never fully immersing itself – into conversations about race and belonging.

Scott works wonders with the material, anyway. She employs subtle expressiveness and a biting wit to mask Mo’s fiery personality so expertly, only to showcase the character’s true potential once she picks up her bass guitar and goes live. Lemonade Mouth is full of appropriately catchy bops, but Mo’s solo is unequivocally memorable because of Scott’s charismatic, naturalistic stage persona.

The release of the Fox Network sci-fi series Terra Nova marks the next 2011 milestone for the actress if an unfortunately fleeting one. With the show’s splashy ingredients — a Steven Spielberg executive producer credit and fun storytelling components — it ought to have worked better. That said, a noticeable problem arises in the actual scope of Terra Nova‘s narrative ambitions. These character-driven plotlines spanning fractured family ties and political upheaval are thrown into a setting of temporal rifts that permit travel to different timestamps in parallel universes.

Terra Nova’s overarching vision requires multiple seasons of airtime to appropriately unpack. In reality, the series only lasts 13 episodes, squeezing far too much information into a truncated timeframe to the detriment of actors like Scott. She is billed as part of the main cast – the middle child of the show’s two leads – yet her screen time and characterization are extremely limited.

Terra Nova banks on the innate intelligence of Scott’s portrayal to sell the bookish smarts of her character, Maddy Shannon. She is clumsy and awkward in an endearing way, too, which is quirky and amusing. All that notwithstanding, Maddy largely operates at the behest of other characters, whether she is being a trustworthy daughter, protective sister, or blooming love interest. Instead, I would have loved to see more of the individualistic vibrancy that Scott is capable of. A more focused show could have brought those qualities to the forefront, especially given the potential of longer-form fiction. Hence, Terra Nova just seems like an opportunity missed.

Still, Scott’s pathway to stardom remains undeterred, and the period between 2012 and 2015 represents a fascinating moment of transition in her professional life. She was beginning to definitively delve into music, independently releasing her first EP in 2014. Simultaneously onscreen – long before Scott began predominantly working in big-screen projects – several short films peppered her resume. And I’m here to tell you that learning about them all has been a total delight.

We begin with Modern/Love, one of four short film screenplays that were picked for development by Roman Coppola and his production company, The Directors Bureau. With Celeste and Jesse Forever’s Lee Toland Krieger at the helm, the film is essentially an elaborate music video — sparkly and tinted with shades of fantasy — that follows two lovers whose entire relationship exists online. That is, until they plan to meet in person on a luxurious vacation… expectations, desires, and all.

As one half of this alluring pair, Scott exudes the thrill and excitement of Modern/Love’s imaginative romantic travails. She matches well with co-star Robert Schwartzman, delivering a beautifully whimsical interpretation of the couple’s fateful meeting. Passion dictates Scott to run away with her feelings and it is her expressive openness and teasing coyness that keeps viewers invested in what could have been a very fleeting story.

In contrast, Peter Szewczyk’s The Lady of Lourdes shifts gears away from the tender. It entrenches Scott in a dramatically demanding performance as a university student whose chance encounter with an alcoholic wanderer underpins a tragic story surrounding the horrors of loss and suffering. Regrettably, The Lady of Lourdes suffers Terra Nova levels of narrative eagerness that doesn’t fully translate. Impressively, though, Scott is still spirited and wholly earnest as the innocent half of the film’s themes about inner demons. Beyond The Lady of Lourdes’ technical zeal, the performances elevate it the most.

The final short of this era in Scott’s career – and my personal favorite – is Hello, Again. The Tom Ruddock-directed film is a much more straightforward examination of life in the aftermath of tragedy. When two strangers meet in a cemetery at the graves of their respective loved ones, a heartfelt and unexpectedly adorable conversation ensues that helps to fill the emotional voids left behind by the muted finality of death.

The premise of Hello, Again is inherently devastating. It’s about losing one’s parents and the profound longing to remain intertwined with them through the tiniest shreds of connection. Yet, the short remains affecting and starkly truthful in its expression of painful normalcy during times of world-shattering sadness. Hello, Again steadily oscillates between humor and drama in a welcomed subdued fashion. Scott turns in a suitably charming and even candid depiction, playing a girl whose coping mechanism involves directly speaking to her father’s headstone — one that demonstrates the complex process of moving on from heartbreak.

Scott was always made for more substantial roles, despite a slower start. Sadly, her first big-screen appearances in the survival drama The 33 and the sci-fi comedy-drama The Martian basically amount to non-speaking cameos. Furthermore, the latter frustratingly leaves her scenes on the cutting room floor in its theatrical cut.

Still, 2015 was the year that Scott was first announced to portray Kimberly Hart, aka the Pink Ranger, in a cinematic reboot of the Power Rangers franchise. At first, the movie didn’t particularly pique my interest. Having grown up on the goofy antics of the Mighty Morphin Power Rangers show and seen other “dark, gritty” remakes of various beloved series, Power Rangers seemed to be a trepidatious project at best. What an astonishing surprise the film turned out to be! Not because it is somehow perfect, but rather, the movie takes such good care of its eponymous protagonists, giving weight to the poignancy of their teenage woes.

Power Rangers isn’t afraid to take time letting the personal lives of all its main players unveil organically. While the five Rangers are misfits in ways that audiences would find recognizable, none of them are gimmicky nor ring false. In what can only be described as a comically conspicuous throwback to Lemonade Mouth, Scott is once again an outsider who joins a band in Power Rangers. However, Kimberly is much farther away from the ideal high schooler compared to her Disney counterpart. The character deals with feelings of guilt, anxiety, and regret until she can come to terms with who she really is.

Scott soars as Kimberly – tough and impulsive regardless of the unseemly twist in her story. She commendably embodies the physicality of the part and radiates a canny coolness that makes her unreadable when she needs to be. Apart from the aloofness of this emotional wall, the audience is primed to like Kimberly, especially when she starts bonding with her fellow oddballs and builds a secure found family.

Eventually, Scott’s more affable qualities shine through as the character loosens up. So much so that despite Kimberly’s initial reticence to open up to her friends about a troubled past, it feels unfathomable that she could ever be that horrible. Yet, viewers must contend with the unkindness of the character’s past actions — she’s been a bully and it eats away at her. This disappointing realization only adds layers to Scott’s take on this reformed popular kid. Kimberly’s progressive determination to be a good person and protect her friends lets her fully earn her hero stripes by Power Rangers’ end.

Power Rangers

The significance of Scott’s Power Rangers performance carries through to her most recent blockbusters as she gains momentum in the film industry. The subsequent inclusion of Aladdin and Elizabeth Banks’ Charlie’s Angels in her filmography taps into different aspects of her acting arsenal, consistently putting her on the map as a captivating leading woman.

Scott continues to hone her skills as a bona fide action hero in Charlie’s Angels. Her character may be the greenest addition to this fresh line-up of multi-talented lady spies, but she and her fellow Angels – played by Kristen Stewart and Ella Balinska – comprise a dream team bursting with ripe headstrong feminist energy. Moreover, Scott shows off a real knack for physical comedy through the sheer earnestness of her approach. She tackles ungraceful silliness with fearless candor.

That same honesty – which ought not to be mistaken for plain guilelessness – makes her a lovely fit to play Princess Jasmine in Aladdin. Based on Disney’s animated film of the same name, Scott’s specific role is powerfully recrafted in this remake. It ends up being the indisputable highlight of the movie (which, in and of itself, is already really fun).

Jasmine dreams of taking over the position of Sultan from her father. Her aspirations are far from unfounded, as she works hard to be taken seriously on an intellectual level. Her heart of gold is unmistakable, too. Jasmine is constantly the smartest person in the room and deserves a chance to be a fair and just ruler. Scott’s probing gaze reflects this razor-sharp mind, seeing through both genie magic and shady diplomacy alike.

However, Jasmine’s confident astuteness isn’t immune to the restrictiveness of her sheltered upbringing. By now, Scott has fine-tuned her method of portraying the internal struggle of duty, responsibility, and personal want, allowing these qualities to simmer naturally through a mix of curious glances and achingly taut displays of propriety. Jasmine’s journey towards true love is thus a strong statement about self-affirmation — a declaration that women can be simultaneously rational, logical, and emotionally-driven. Clearly, she would be just fine without Aladdin but chooses to honor her heart. This makes the character whole and relatable, and an immeasurably important one for younger audiences.

All this to ask: is Naomi Scott the movie star we need in Hollywood, not just now but for years to come? I definitely believe so. She makes her mark so discernibly in big, busy films that these talents could perceptibly translate to other media with ease. That’s been the thing about Scott from the start. Watching her never feels like an inordinate chase for likability. Rather, Scott’s trajectory from fledgling to cinema pro is underpinned by a stellar quality of authenticity, lending itself well to a promising cross-genre onscreen career.

(Contributor)

Often chugging tea and thinking about horror movies. Particularly loves writing stuff and things with a feminist bent here at Film School Rejects.