Wednesday, December 26, 2018

If Beale Street Could Talk - Review

Merely a few years removed from directing and writing a Best Picture winner, Barry Jenkins returns to grace audiences with another exquisite and emotional film. In many ways, If Beale Street Could Talk feels like a spiritual sibling to Moonlight, with Jenkins melding of aesthetically pleasing frames, precise use of color, and a mesmerizing integration of music to ensnare the audience into this world, and possibly put himself in line for another winner.

In early 1970s Harlem, daughter and wife-to-be Tish (KiKi Layne) vividly recalls the passion, respect and trust that have connected her and her artist fiancé Alonzo Hunt (Stephan James), who goes by the nickname Fonny. Friends since childhood, the devoted couple dream of a future together, but their plans are derailed when Fonny is arrested for a crime he did not commit.

Writer and director Barry Jenkins works the narrative in through flashbacks, a look at the growing romance of his main characters as they move through 1970s New York City. It isn’t a slick narrative by any means, but rather a recollection of memories associated with the feelings of hope from budding love to the sudden crash of reality, all mirrored through the subtle changes in how the film is shot and scored. 

Barry Jenkins once again teams up with cinematographer James Laxton and composer Nicholas Britell to bring the film to life. Both were appropriately nominated for their work on Moonlight in 2016, and will likely be nominated once more for the exceptional work on display here. 

Laxton is never flashy, operating with a fluidity that perfectly mimics the lives of those on screen. The actors will occasionally look directly in camera, as if acknowledging the audience and daring them to fall in love the way they have. Combine all of that beauty with a soothing and poetic score from Nicholas Britell, and If Beale Street Could Talk becomes nothing short of a work of art.

And no film would feel complete without the performances that fill each masterful frame and shot. For If Beale Street Could Talk, Barry Jenkins introduces the world to KiKi Layne, a newcomer who exudes a naive, quiet exterior. It’s a small performance, not big or loud in any way, but her talent shines through in what is sure to get her quite a bit of recognition as the breakthrough she is. 

Due to the subdued figures at the head of this lovely film, the supporting performances get to shine a bit brighter. Regina King has already begun her awards run with various critic groups, and its wholly deserved. King is the heart of the film, stealing every moment she is allowed and running with it. And though King is presented with numerous sequences to show off her abilities, the most memorable may fall to Brian Tyree Henry, whose friendly conversation with Stephan James’s Fonny quickly turns dour when recalling his time behind bars. It’s a somber sequence, but enough to earn Henry’s place in awards conversation right alongside King.

If Beale Street Could Talk is truly an astounding film, in more ways than one. For one, Barry Jenkins has followed up on a Best Picture win with another gorgeous contender, a film that is gentle and shiny that masks its harsher reality amidst the beauty it so eloquently delivers. For another, this is a film that shows no weak links, as every piece of this puzzle fits perfectly. The performances are stellar, with a handful standing out for inevitable awards, and the technical side of things are handled masterfully by James Laxton and Nicholas Britell. 2018 has been a marvelous year for film, but none relish in the beauty of love and hope that If Beale Street Could Talk does.

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