The last time writer/director Barry Jenkins brought us one of his films, he performed that rarest of tricks: turning a $1.5m budget into an excellent drama, a box office hit, multiple Oscars, and a movie that gave the Academy Awards the most dramatic twist finale in its history.
Most crucially of all, the film in question – Moonlight – has continued to resonate, and rightly so.
Yet If Beale Street Could Talk, Jenkins’ new release, hasn’t quite enjoyed the same level of Academy love. Shut out of the bulk of major Oscar categories, it’s easy to conclude that the film is more conventional, just a little less ambitious, and doesn’t feel as groundbreaking. For me? I’d just argue that it’s quieter. It’s a slow, patient diligent piece of cinema that’s no less impactful. It just gets you slowly.
The basics, then. The film is adapted by Jenkins from the source novel by James Baldwin (whose text he directly quotes in a text card at the start). At heart, it’s the tale of a romance between a young black couple, KiKi Layne’s Tish and Stephan James’ Fonny (the pair sharing terrific chemistry on screen). When we meet them, they’re at the start of what should be their time together. Tish is pregnant, but we quickly learn that Fonny is behind bars and accused of rape, with more details on what’s led the pair to this point revealed throughout the film.
It’s hard to think of a character in the movie who’s short-changed
Jenkins allows that story to build slowly, and not always chronologically. The film thus takes us back and forth to moments in time, as we come to understand what’s brought the characters to where they are. It’s a quality ensemble that’s built around Layne and James, too, and it’s hard to think of a character in the movie who’s short-changed.