NYFF Review: ‘If Beale Street Could Talk’

If Beale Street Could Talk | Barry Jenkins | NYFF 2018

Hot off of winning Best Picture for his phenomenal Moonlight, director Barry Jenkins returns with his anticipated follow-up If Beale Street Could Talk. Based on James Baldwin’s novel of the same name and adapted for the big screen by Jenkins, If Beale Street Could Talk continues to prove that Jenkins is one of the most important voices working and creating in modern cinema today.

Clementine “Tish” Rivers (KiKi Layne) and Alonzo “Fonny” Hunt (Stephan James) have been best friends their who lives and fell in love as romantic partners as they got older. Fonny ends up in jail for allegedly raping a woman, a crime that no one that knows him actually believes he committed, all while Tish learns that she has become pregnant with his baby.

The news of the pregnancy comes to the delight of her family, which includes her mother Sharon (Regina King), her father Joseph (Colman Domingo), and her sister Ernestine (Teyonah Parris). When they break the news to Fonny’s family – his mother Alice (Aunjanue Ellis), father (Michael Beach) and sisters Adrienne (Ebony Obsidian) and Sheila (Dominique Thorne) – don’t take it as well in one of the films earliest scenes which remains of its stand out moments.

Told in a non-linear format, If Beale Street Could Talk sees Jenkins take a patient yet confident approach that takes one deep breath and allows all of the grief and heartbreak to unfold as naturally as can be. Outside of this early sequence where the two families come to blows as the news about the new member of both families arrives, the film doesn’t quite match the climactic dramatic heft. Although cinematographer James Laxton (who also shot Moonlight and Jenkins’ debut Medicine for Melancholy) does his best to bring this all to life in a breathtaking fashion that is completely and utterly cinematic.

Instead, we’re treated to a slow born of flashbacks and the unfathomable reality that this is a situation that was doomed from the start and despite the best efforts of all those around Fonny, that there’s not much hope for the situation to be rectified. We live in troubling times and it’s safe to say that the themes and issues that are found here are just as timely today as they were when Baldwin wrote the novel back in 1974.

There are a ton of stand out performances that bring this to life, from the bright-eyes performance from KiKi Layne as Tish, to Stephen James’ poised but broken performance as Fonny. It’s Regina King’s heartbreaking turn as Sharon, a mother desperate to find justice for her family, best shown when she tracks down the alleged rape victim who most likely misidentified Fonny and is unwilling to fix the situation.

This is a much different experience than Moonlight, one that is filled with little moments and lines that stick with you. One surprisingly touching moment is one that the couple share with a Jewish landlord played by Dave Franco, of all people. There isn’t quite that big dramatic heft that is carried throughout, but a lingering feeling of sadness that sticks with you long after you leave the theater. It never quite breaks out in the big way that I expected but still hits you hard in your emotional core and leaves a lasting impression.

Rating: 8.4/10