REVIEW: If Beale Street Could Talk

Posted by Matthew Thornton on Monday, February 4, 2019

Director: Barry Jenkins
Writers: Barry Jenkins (written for the screen by), James Baldwin (based on the book by)
Starring: KiKi Layne, Stephan James, Regina King
Runtime: 119 mins
MPAA Rating: R

      Coming off of a Best Picture win for Moonlight, Barry Jenkins decided to focus his efforts on a big screen adaptation of James Baldwin’s 1974 novel (which I have not read). If Beale Street Could Talk details the arduous romantic relationship between Tish Waters (Kiki Layne) and Alonzo “Fonny” Hunt (Stephan James) in 1970s Harlem as they prepare to establish a family and a life for themselves. Despite their very low standard of living, they are happy, that is until Fonny winds up in jail due to a serious rape accusation of questionable credibility.

      The central narrative begins with Tish visiting Fonny in prison to reveal that she is pregnant with their first child. We follow their story along as she moves closer to giving birth and as he moves closer to his trial. This forward-moving plot is interspersed with a myriad of flashbacks to their life and relationship before Fonny’s incarceration. Many of these flashbacks are done in a sort of isolated vignette style in order to draw attention to specific ideas and sentiments. This non-linear timeline actually works as it slowly but effectively builds the world of the two characters. It reflects how you get to know friends in real life. You know who they are right now and quickly learn what they are going through in the present, but only by spending time with them and having them recount their past experiences and struggles, each of which contributed in some way to who they are now, do you get to know them on a deeper level.

      Barry Jenkins is gifted at getting nuanced emotional performances out of his actors. The warmth and love between Tish and Donny is reflected in every scene. What’s more remarkable is how much of the acting is simply done through facial expressins. The shot composition consists of lots of intense close ups, and each of the actors is skilled at manipulating their facial features to convey specific thoughts and feelings (almost reminiscent of silent film-era performances). The two leads are phenomenal in their individual roles as well as their on-screen chemistry. The supporting cast was also excellent for the most part, highlighted by Regina King as Tish’s supportive and dedicated mother. The cinematography is without a doubt some of the year’s best as the camera is gracefully moved about the artfully constructed urban scenes, knowing when and just how long to stop and linger. With strong attention to detail, the production design puts you right into the 1970s. To top it all off, the violin-heavy score is fantastic and is tastefully used to reinforce the emotions that are being depicted on screen.

      I do have a few issues which I must address. The story stretches a small amount of events out as far possible, and a number of sequences transpire much slower than I think they need to. There are parts of this movie that drag where I felt my interest start to drift. Like I said, I have not read the book, but I felt as though some of the dialogue and narration was stilted and not as crisp as it could have been as if they were trying to incorporate verbatim passages from the novel. Additionally, there are some straight-up awkward cameos that took me out of the experience. However, the central narrative and performances are strong and ultimately hold the film together and what make it so endearing.

      Barry Jenkins yet again proves he understands how to portray characters as real human beings and his direction is impeccable. This film is able to make intelligent and moving social statements while also being subtle and artistic in the presentation. Strong performances and skillful direction make this film memorable, and, thus, I highly recommend it.

RATING: ★★★★

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