D: Barry Jenkins / 119m
Cast: KiKi Layne, Stephan James, Regina King, Colman Domingo, Teyonah Parris, Michael Beach, Aunjanue Ellis, Ebony Obsidian, Dominique Thorne, Bryan Tyree Henry, Diego Luna, Ed Skrein, Finn Wittrock, Dave Franco, Pedro Pascal, Emily Rios
Clementine “Tish” Rivers (Layne) and Alonzo “Fonny” Hunt (James) are childhood friends who have grown up and fallen in love. But building a life together has become something of a challenge: Fonny’s mother (Ellis) doesn’t like her, and finding a place where they can live together is hampered by most New York landlords’ reluctance to rent to black couples. Eventually finding a place through a Jewish landlord (Franco), the pair are shopping nearby one evening when Tish is accosted by a stranger. Fonny sees him off, but not before a passing policeman, Officer Bell (Skrein), gets involved and tries to arrest Fonny. The store owner intervenes, but Fonny’s card is marked. Some time later, Fonny is arrested by the same officer for the rape of a woman (Rios) who lives in another district; Bell states he saw Fonny running from the scene and the woman picks him out of a lineup. Fonny has an alibi, though, but with the police and prosecutors dismissing it, Tish and her family set out to prove Fonny’s innocence…
Told in non-linear fashion, Barry Jenkins’ adaptation of the novel of the same name by James Baldwin, begins with the revelation that Tish is pregnant. Fonny is already behind bars, awaiting trial, and Jenkins depicts the scene where Tish informs both families. It’s a good scene, and gives Ellis a chance to shine as Fonny’s mother, a religious zealot with a vicious streak a mile wide. And yet, though it is a good scene, it also provides the first indication that Jenkins’ adaptation might not prove as rewarding a movie overall as his previous feature, Moonlight (2016). For all the drama and outbursts of physical and verbal violence, the scene is overwritten, and filled with the kind of structured dialogue that only occurs in the movies, or on stage. And despite the best efforts of a very talented cast, this leads to the scene having only a certain amount of energy and power. As the movie progresses, there are many more scenes that reflect this problem with the screenplay, including an extended scene between Fonny and his friend, Daniel (Henry), and the moment when Tish’s mother (King) meets the woman Fonny is supposed to have raped. Many of these scenes have an unfortunate tendency to drag, or feel under-developed, and the movie suffers as a result.
The overall feeling is that Jenkins is being too respectful of the source material, and in attempting to remain faithful to Baldwin’s work, has done so at the expense of making it a truly cinematic experience. There is emotion here, and much of it is expressed through the love that Tish and Fonny have for each other, but it doesn’t resonate or linger from scene to scene, and in the end it doesn’t matter how many affecting close ups of Layne and James are used, they’re unable to improve on the minimal impact that’s present throughout. Though it’s an intelligent, perceptive movie when it comes to racial matters and the details of Tish and Fonny’s relationship, and Jenkins places the action in an ersatz combination of the Seventies and modern day that is oddly effective, even James Laxton’s excellent cinematography and Nicholas Britell’s Seventies-influenced score can’t overcome the deficits inherent in the material. Layne and James make for a sweetly likeable couple, and there’s terrific support from King, Henry, and the aforementioned Ellis, but there are times when the use of some cast members is a distraction of the “oh look, it’s…” variety (Pascal, Franco). Somewhere in If Beale Street Could Talk there’s a definitive version of Baldwin’s novel trying to break out, but thanks to Jenkins’ inconsistent efforts, it never gets the chance to show itself.
Rating: 7/10 – with enough about it to justify the good reviews it’s getting elsewhere, in truth If Beale Street Could Talk looks and sounds like a movie that doesn’t know how to connect with its audience; technically well made, and with a number of relevant things to say about the nature of love and commitment, it’s ultimately a movie that’s difficult to engage with, and not as powerful as it could have been.