In Never Say Never, the original Bieber biopic, we met the young pop star as a virtuoso, a kid who played every instrument, sang like an angel, and had hair that must have required some sort of deal with the devil. It reassured both skeptic chaperones and devoted fans that here was a teen icon that Pop Inc. had discovered, not manufactured.
Believe, on the other hand, shows us an artist at work, and this time around, we enter the now 19-year-old’s world while he sits behind the piano, hitting a melody that’s not nearly as memorable as the focused expression that we will see repeatedly throughout the movie. This time around, the most important hair isn’t that which swoops off his scalp and across his forehead (those hairs, alas, have been cut) but a few barely there strands between his nose and his upper lip. That mustache, in turn, symbolizes everything this film intends to be about, some unspecified combination of struggle, maturity, faith, and self-determination.
Structurally, the film mostly retraces the steps Never Say Never already trod. We see Bieber in concert, of course, and in between songs we see him in the studio, mobbed by fans and goofing off. Where the first film followed Scooter Braun, Biebs’s manager, as he circled arenas in search of fans who needed tickets, the sequel features a nearly identical sequence, presumably included solely to push the film’s runtime over the 90-minute mark, the only difference being that because of his previous big-screen appearance, fans have since begun to recognize him in the crowd.
As it turns out, Believe‘s most difficult task isn’t accounting for its star’s increasingly wild behavior — charming almost to a fault, he comes across as mature as (and certainly more driven than) your typical teenager — but convincing the viewer that promotions like the one above aren’t at all exploitative. The one above becomes particularly uncomfortable when Braun pushes one to the brink of tears, initially telling her that he has enough tickets to seat only her friends.
Upon learning that no, she will be receiving a backstage pass, the girl does the same as who-knows-how-many-girls featured elsewhere in the film: She bursts into tears. But at a certain point — a point that, to be honest, was probably reached one-and-a-half films ago — such clips began to appear less about documenting or even smiling at these hyperbolic reactions, and more about conditioning girls that if they want to be true Beliebers, they would do best to respond this way as well.
In the week following the film’s Christmas release, commentators have been either quick (and oddly eager) to label it a bomb (though those comparing box office totals should note that the higher price of 3-D tickets inflated the numbers of Never Say Never) or distracted by Bieber’s since-redacted retirement announcement. And while retirement seems to be the last thing on the mind of the musician we see working diligently alongside producers like Darkchild and Mike Posner, Tweeting that he’s done with music seems completely in character for the teenager who defies everyone from his stylist to his mother, refusing to shave those little blonde hairs that high-def cameras reveal sitting just above his upper lip.