Coming off the back of his eventual Oscar-winning and utterly poetic drama Moonlight. Barry Jenkins returns with an adaptation of James Baldwin’s novel of the same name If Beale Street Could Talk.
Having known each other since childhood, Alonzo “Fonny Hunt” (Stephan James) and Clementine “Tish” Rivers (KiKi Layne) soon fall in love. Shortly after, Tish becomes pregnant as Fonny is arrested and falsely charged with rape. Tish is left to inform both families, who (bar a few) rally around in an attempt to free Fonny before the child is born. Tish and Fonny’s fathers Joseph (Colman Domingo) and Frank (Michael Beach) generate funds for a lawyer. While Tish’s mother Sharon (Regina King) travels in a bid for justice.
Although If Beale Street Could Talk remains unflinching with a palpable sense of heartbreak and injustice coursing throughout. It lacked the raw edge and subtleties of Moonlight. What begins as a nuanced depiction of family life, young love and fly-on-the-wall conversations descends into melodramatic speeches and rigid dialogue. A shift in tone that’s likely to garner more of a mainstream appeal, tainting the film with a seemingly deliberate Oscar vibe. Paired with its plodding pace, the film falls short of having enough dramatic impact, clashing with Nicholas Britell’s overwhelming score.
While Moonlight mesmerised as it drifted seamlessly through three distinct chapters, remaining as luminous as it was abrasive. If Beale Street Could Talk meanders in the middle, kept afloat by countless faultless performances. Each role is so authentically lived-in, almost at odds with the film’s overbearing nature. Nonetheless, the standout is the romantic core of the film. A truly authentic portrayal of a blooming relationship, vividly brought to life by Stephan James and KiKi Layne.
There’s a similar beauty to the film however, that’s present in all of Jenkins’ films, despite the often tough subject matter. Showcasing Jenkins’ innate ability to get under the skin of a location, burrow beneath attitudes of the time and most importantly exist behind the eyes of his characters. Returning cinematographer James Laxton once more embroils us amongst those characters. His uncompromising focus on their features almost leaves an imprint of their soul on the screen.
If Beale Street Could Talk lacks the understated power of Barry Jenkins’ acclaimed predecessor.