Movie review: 'If Beale Street Could Talk' shares gorgeous tale of love and survival

  • Tish (KiKi Layne) and Fonny (Stephan James) play lovers in "If Beale Street Could Talk."

    Tish (KiKi Layne) and Fonny (Stephan James) play lovers in "If Beale Street Could Talk." Annapurna Pictures

 
By Ann Hornaday
The Washington Post

"If Beale Street Could Talk" -- ★ ★ ★ ★

In 2017, writer-director Barry Jenkins won a best-picture Oscar for "Moonlight," a wrenching and rapturous chronicle of a young man experiencing first love that melded expressionism and restraint with a delicate but firm sense of control.

Jenkins brings that same sensibility to bear on "If Beale Street Could Talk," his exquisite adaptation of the James Baldwin novel. In "Beale Street," as in "Moonlight," the director melds color, music and portraiture to transcend the conventional tools of filmmaking to work with pure emotion itself.

From its first moments, "Beale Street" signals that it will not be a typical movie: Tish and Fonny (KiKi Layne and Stephan James), walk in a New York park. As Tish narrates, what begins as a fairly conventional love scene turns out to be a flashback, slamming into her present-day reality, in which she's visiting Fonny in jail. In a mosaic of memories, the film -- set in the early 1970s -- chronicles pivotal moments in their romance.

"Beale Street" isn't executed as a seamless narrative, but as a collection of impressions that feel almost theatrical in their lush beauty, as Tish remembers the optimism of her early love affair with Fonny and recounts how it came crashing down. Although Baldwin was clear about how racism and injustice structured the lives of these two, and Jenkins doesn't shy away from that, polemics are secondary to drawing viewers into a world that may be filled with unfairness and oppression, but also bursts with optimism, sensuality and an adamant insistence on self-worth.

Because Tish and Fonny are such subdued figures, it's the supporting characters who wind up being more indelible: Regina King has already earned a clutch of awards and nominations for her ferocious, tender portrayal of Tish's mother, Sharon, and for good reason. She's the beating heart of some of the film's finest scenes, including when Sharon travels to Puerto Rico in search of exoneration for her future son-in-law.

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For all the suffering and injustice brought to bear in "Beale Street," Jenkins has made an absolutely gorgeous film. This is a movie that works cumulatively, its carefully curated moments building on each other to create a transcendent whole, finally becoming a testament to love and survival as ecstatic as it is heartbreaking.

• • •

Starring: KiKi Layne, Stephan James, Regina King, Brian Tyree Henry

Directed by: Barry Jenkins

Other: An Annapurna Pictures release. In limited release. Rated R for language and sexual situations. 119 minutes

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