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.
Perhaps if there’s a standout, that honour goes to the superb Regina King. King did get Oscar recognition for her performance as Tish’s mother, and deservedly so. Just to zero in on her character, she portrays a woman both enriched with love and torn apart by the unfairness of her future son-in-law’s imprisonment – but also one who doesn’t always react predictably to moments we’ve regularly seen go elsewhere on screen. Second-guess the movie at your peril.
There’s one particular standout scene that brings both sides of the young couple’s family together. It’s fascinating to watch. Initially played lightly, Jenkins deftly moves the tone and power mechanics as events play out, adding significant strokes to one particular character who, on the surface, comes across as highly likeable.
Beautifully shot by James Laxton, If Beale Street Could Talk radiates a warmth and tenderness that sometimes – very effectively – jars with what’s narratively happening on screen. If there’s a further hidden hero in the movie, it’s casting director Cindy Tolan. You’ll have to look hard this year to find an ensemble who work together this well, with excellent turns from performers such as Colman Domingo, Michael Beach and Ed Skrein.
It’s some piece of work, this. The deliberate pace won’t appeal to all, and there’s certainly a debate as to whether there’s quite enough narrative to cover the full two-hour running time. Against that, it’s a thoroughly absorbing, challenging piece of cinema, with so many quiet standouts that perhaps it’s understandable the Academy didn’t quite know which way to look.
Read our interview with If Beale Street Could Talk star Stephen James here