REVIEW: ‘If Beale Street Could Talk’ is another solid entry in Jenkins’ filmography

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Tish (Kiki Layne) and Fonny (Stephan James) in “If Beale Street Could Talk.”

Cameron Hoover

Even though it is somewhat limited by its runtime and doesn’t tie up all of its loose ends, Barry Jenkins’ “If Beale Street Could Talk” is a beautifully crafted, powerfully acted film that cements the 39-year-old director’s place amongst some of the most caring filmmakers working today.

The movie, based on James Baldwin’s 1974 novel of the same name and translated to the screen by Jenkins, follows Alonzo Hunt (Stephan James), better known as Fonny, as he is wrongfully placed in jail for a rape he did not commit. As his jail time begins while he awaits trial, his wife, Tish (KiKi Layne), visits Fonny and tells him she’s pregnant.

From there, the film unravels into a tender retelling of one of Baldwin’s seminal works following Tish, Fonny and their combined family as they try to scrounge enough money and courage to prove Fonny’s innocence.

Between Jenkins’ direction, James Laxton’s warm cinematography and Nicholas Britell’s ever-present, aching score, the film sets a tone early somewhere between despair and hope. The story has racial undertones and definitely stacks the deck against Fonny and especially Tish, but Jenkins’ script doesn’t fall into a place completely devoid of light.

The driving event of the story is Fonny’s imprisonment and Tish’s pregnancy, but the film is really about familial love, whether it be between a husband and wife, between a mother and daughter or just between two people who feel a connection to each other.

FILM FACT BOX

Title: If Beale Street Could Talk

Director: Barry Jenkins

Starring: KiKi Layne, Stephan James, Regina King, Colman Domingo, Teyonah Parris, Michael Beach, Dave Franco, Ed Skrein, Finn Wittrock

Writers: Barry Jenkins; based on the novel by James Baldwin

Runtime: 119 minutes

You can feel the blood pumping through the veins of “If Beale Street Could Talk,” as every character acts entirely out of love for one another, despite having to contend with unfair circumstances.

On top of the beautiful technical aspects, the film features some of the best acting performances in the past decade. James and Layne play the lead roles with great compassion, but the star of the show here is Regina King as Tish’s mother, Sharon. King will most likely get a Best Supporting Actress nomination at the Oscars for this, and it would be entirely deserved if she won. King adds a completely different layer to the movie as her character grapples with the criminal justice system and religion while trying to remind everyone around her that love is the most important thing.

Brian Tyree Henry also completely steals the only scene he’s in, delivering a monologue about his time in prison so emotional and bone-chillingly cold it’s impossible not to be affected by it. Even though “If Beale Street Could Talk” has slowly fallen slightly out of many Oscars talks, these two performances definitely deserve some awards season hype.

There are a few missteps that prevent “If Beale Street Could Talk” from reaching the heights Jenkins hit with his last film, the Best Picture-winning “Moonlight.” The film is interspersed with oddly out-of-place narration scenes from Tish, including an especially strange freeze frame early in the movie, that don’t do much for the story other than hamper the pacing.

Also, as mentioned above, Henry is phenomenal in his only scene, but it’s his only scene. Dave Franco (surprisingly), Ed Skrein, Emily Rios and Finn Wittrock also deliver powerful one-scene performances, but the film needed about 20 more minutes of runtime to flesh them out before we abruptly never see their characters again.

Even though Jenkins’ follow-up to “Moonlight” didn’t quite hit all its marks, “If Beale Street Could Talk” comes damn close. Because of that, it cements Jenkins’ status as a filmmaker to watch for years to come, showing us, once again, why he is in the upper echelon of filmmakers working today.

GRADE: B+

 Cameron Hoover is a film critic. Contact him at [email protected]