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If Beale Street Could Talk is a film that arrives with a great deal of expectations. After all, it's writer/director Barry Jenkins' follow-up to the Best Picture-winning Moonlight, and that positioning comes with the question of whether or not the filmmaker is the real deal (despite the fact that it's actually his third feature). The 2016 film is a stunning piece of art, but would any future work measure up to it?
Now that the new movie has been completed and screened, we can answer that question with a definitive "yes."
Though it's a work playing in a different arena than Moonlight, being an adaptation instead of an original story, If Beale Street Could Talk is yet another stunning, breathtaking work from Barry Jenkins, and an incredible affirmation of his gifts as a filmmaker. It's a bold and beautiful love story brought to life by an incredible ensemble delivering stellar performances, and while it's decidedly not "Hollywood" in its approach and narrative, it's an incredibly satisfying piece of cinema.
Based on the novel of the same name by James Baldwin, the tale takes us back to the early 1970s in New York and tells the story of the love between Clementine "Tish" Rivers (KiKi Layne) and Alonzo "Fonny" Hunt (Stephen James). At the start of the story, Fonny has been imprisoned for a crime he didn't commit, and making matters more complicated is the discovery that Tish is pregnant with his baby.
The first hurdle is telling her parents (Colman Domingo, Regina King) and her sister (Teyonah Parris) about the pregnancy, but that is only the start. The news still has to be delivered to Fonny's family (Michael Beach, Aunjanue Ellis, Ebony Obsidian, Dominique Thorne), and then there is the fight for the future, as Tish tries to do everything that she can to prove Fonny's innocence and bring him home to see the birth of his child.
Barry Jenkins' script weaves through a non-linear narrative with tremendous grace, artfully revealing the past as it becomes relevant to the present, and has a powerful story to tell that balances painful despair with a beautiful and ultimately surprising optimism. It touches on important, socially relevant themes that have been present in some of the best films we've seen this year -- including BlackKklansman, Blindspotting, The Hate U Give, and Sorry To Bother -- but very much has its own take and message to deliver.
If Beale Street Could Talk is an utterly enrapturing experience not only because of your intense emotional engagement with the characters, but also because of how the magnificent direction and cinematography draw you into the world. Barry Jenkins has a clear and demonstrated love of faces -- echoes of Stanley Kubrick in the work - and his collaboration with cinematographer James Laxton yields some of the most emotional work of the year as actors stare through the camera like looking down the barrel of a gun. It can be wrenching, but it's also balanced by the sheer beauty of the film's vision of 1970s New York, soft lit with a touch of sepia tone.
The power of the material in If Beale Street Could Talk requires actors strong enough to carry the weight, and each role is played to perfection. The film unquestionably lives or dies on the strength of the bond between Tish and Fonny, and young stars KiKi Layne and Stephen James each deliver stunning turns that will solidify interest in all of their forthcoming work. That being said, the movie still makes room for scene-stealers as well, with Colman Domingo leading the pack -- his character going against all expectations and bringing tremendous life and love to the story. And though he basically only appears for one scene, Brian Tyree Henry's appearance leaves an impact that you continue to think about well after the film has finished.
It's beyond exciting that this is only Barry Jenkins' third film. It's downright ridiculous that a filmmaker can be working at this high a level so early in his career, and one can only imagine what the future holds for him. If Beale Street Could Talk is a spectacular movie, a moving, emotional experience, and a brilliant complement to his previous history-making work.