Beale Street an achingly beautiful mood piece
If Beale Street Could Talk
January 17, 2019
Barry Jenkins, the director of Moonlight, brings magic to the screen once again with If Beale Street Could Talk, a spellbinding and sensuous portrait of young love flourishing amid tragic circumstances.
With disarming close-ups and a warm, autumnal color palette, Jenkins creates a world that’s both inviting and illuminating while fully acknowledging and exploring the darker corners that reside within it. Every sensation experienced by the characters — from longing to sorrow to jubilation — is poetically rendered by Jenkins to tell an entrancing story that feels deeply human and lastingly resonant.
Based on James Baldwin’s 1974 novel, Beale Street is primarily a love story centered around 19-year-old Tish (Kiki Layne) and her older boyfriend Fonny (Stephan James), who started as childhood friends but became closer as time progressed.
We soon discover that the young and un-wed Tish is pregnant with Fonny’s child, much to the delight of her mother Sharon (Regina King) and father Joseph (Colman Domingo) but to the chagrin of Fonny’s mother (Aunjanue Ellis). As the narrative continues, we learn that Fonny has been wrongfully incarcerated and we track Tish’s journey to prove his innocence before their child is brought into the world.
Jenkins utilizes his world cinema influences to weave a tale of injustice and intimacy with a loose chronological perspective. He tends to linger around what he finds alluring within a certain time and place. Striking sequences, like one in which Tish outlines the way different customers approach sampling a new perfume scent, give an evocative sense of context and setting without strictly adhering to the main storyline.
There are certain characters, such as the ones played by Brian Tyree Henry and Dave Franco, whose time on-screen is short but their emotional impact lingers throughout the film.
Faithfully adapting both prose and tone from Baldwin’s book, Jenkins fills his script with moments in which characters quietly assert their dignity during the peak of their own personal struggles.
During an early scene in which a trepidatious Tish is breaking the pregnancy news to her family, her sister Ernestine comes to her support by saying, “Unbow your head, sister.” Every opportunity for empowerment is beautifully realized.
The inverse of this are the lines that remind us of the heartbreaking strife at the core of the story, as Tish narrates, “I hope that nobody has ever had to look at anybody they love through glass.”
Collaborating again with Jenkins for the film’s music is Oscar-nominated composer Nicholas Britell, whose achingly beautiful score is so potent that just hearing the first thirty seconds of it had me on the verge of tears. Also returning with Jenkins from Moonlight is Oscar-nominated cinematographer James Laxton, who often uses close-ups of actors looking directly in the lens to engage with the audience and draw us further into the story.
The sum of these artistic contributions makes If Beale Street Could Talk an utterly engrossing mood piece that sways to its own rhythm and invites us to join along with it.
Coming to theaters this weekend
Glass, starring Samuel L. Jackson and Bruce Willis, is the latest from M. Night Shyamalan that brings together characters from Unbreakable and Split to tell a new kind of superhero story.
Destroyer, starring Nicole Kidman and Sebastian Stan, follows an LAPD detective who revisits an undercover case from years ago to solve a gang-related murder in the present.
Also playing at Cinema Center is Roma, the acclaimed film by Alfonso Cuarón that has already won multiple awards this month (including two Golden Globes) and will likely be up for several Oscar nominations next month.