If Beale Street Could Talk ****

It’s a beautifully made film from director Barry Jenkins (“Moonlight”), as the music, narrative structure and performances (especially Regina King) are outstanding. 

Is it worth $10? Yes  

What a heartbreaking film “If Beale Street Could Talk” is, in all the best ways a movie can be heartbreaking. None of it is melodramatic – all the emotions are earned, be they for pain, desperation, or yearning. What’s more, the love we see on screen is pure, and the challenges to that love are tragic.

Based on the 1974 James Baldwin novel, it tells the story of Tish (newcomer KiKi Lane) and Fonny (Stephan James), childhood friends who in 1970s Harlem fall in love. She’s shy, introverted, reserved. He’s a bit more outgoing, gentle and strong. We easily see why they love one another, and it’s clear that if you’re going to root for any couple to succeed, it’s them. In flashbacks we see their initial moments together are tender and awkward, as many first dates and sexual encounters can be. This also makes them relatable and real. Soon, she’s pregnant. They’re ecstatic, her family is ecstatic. Here they are, these young, impoverished kids, makin’ a go of it in this crazy world.

It’s not all roses and first kisses, of course. Fonny is accused of a rape that he allegedly did not commit, and sent to prison. The circumstances that charged him with the crime are questionable. Tish is determined to get him out of prison before she gives birth, but meets resistance at every turn. Will she succeed so they can live happily ever after with their baby?

The editing is essential: Scenes of Tish and Fonny falling in love are intercut with prison visits and Tish doing all she can to set him free. This means the movie emotionally moves in opposite directions, as their growing love is juxtaposed with what feels like a futile fight to hold onto what they have. There’s urgency here: Tish’s longing becomes our longing, Fonny’s frustration our frustration. If told in chronological order, this effect would be moot, as it would create a linear structure that would be all syrupy in the beginning and all pathos in the end. Structuring the story this way is a stroke of brilliance by writer/director Barry Jenkins, who won an Oscar for his “Moonlight” (2016) screenplay. Although a scene or two may drag, there’s no doubt another writing Oscar nomination, and possibly one for director, are coming Jenkins’ way.

The supporting cast is more than up to the task, highlighted by Regina King as Tish’s headstrong mother, Sharon. More than anyone, she goes with Tish to meet Fonny’s lawyer (Finn Wittrock), and even ventures to find Fonny’s alleged victim (Emily Rios) on her own, hoping upon hope to talk her out of what Sharon believes is an erroneous positive identification of Fonny as the assailant. It’s King’s commanding presence that shines through. We learn early on that she’s no-nonsense and loving, and those traits carry Sharon to take control whenever she sees injustice at hand. If only she had superpowers.

If you haven’t read Baldwin’s book, you might think you know how this will play out. You’ll be wrong. And when it’s over, and you think about it, you’ll be glad you’re wrong. Without a doubt, “If Beale Street Could Talk” is one of the best movies of the year and a surefire Oscar contender. Don’t miss it!

Did you know?
Filmed on location in New York City.

Cron Job Starts