Barry Jenkins’ Moonlight might be one of the least conventional Best Picture winners in Oscars history — a swooning, impressionistic portrait of queer black boyhood composed like a tone poem and portrayed by a series of actors the world hardly knew. (Though in at least one case, it changed that immediately.)
It follows that his next project would swerve further toward the mainstream, and If Beale Street Could Talk is certainly more accessible, in outline at least. Though again, Jenkins seems to approach filmmaking with a sort of inspired synesthesia: There’s a musicality to Beale that isn’t just confined to the soundtrack of jazz and strings and Nina Simone, a rhythm to his camera angles and storytelling and the particular beats each scene hits.
In some ways Beale feels less like a movie than a well-staged, meticulously shot play; a period piece that floats beyond its specific time and place and into the realm of allegory. In the strictest sense it’s the love story, and the tragedy, of Fonny (Stephan James) and Kiki (Tish Rivers), childhood best friends who’ve evolved naturally into lovers.
The setting is New York City somewhere near the early 1970s, and they’re happy together the way only two young beautiful people can be when they have each other and the whole world ahead of them. But within the first few minutes Fonny lands in prison, accused of a rape Kiki knows he didn’t commit.
She’s 19, he’s 22; they haven’t had the chance to get married yet but she will be having his baby, and she’s determined to get him out before the birth. So is her father (Colman Domingo), mother (a phenomenal Regina King, who should probably start pulling some awards-show gowns now), and older sister (the always excellent Teyonah Parris, of Chiraq and Mad Men).
Beale is based on James Baldwin’s 1974 novel, and it has the singular gift of his words. But his high style is also far from the dreamy naturalism of Moonlight, and there’s an element of performance to Beale‘s unfolding that blunts some of its emotional impact; Tish and Fonny are too lovely, and too wronged, to ever quite be real. (Though Parris and Atlanta‘s Brian Tyree Henry, both fantastically focused and raw, tend to cut through that every time they’re onscreen.)
Diego Luna, Finn Wittrock, and Dave Franco also appear in small supporting roles (Luna’s is so brief that it feels like something must have been left on the cutting-room floor), but the movie mostly belongs to Jenkins’ two young leads, who never fail to make their joy and pain luminous onscreen, even if it’s all a little too simplified and idealized.
And by the end, it does feel as if they’ve both lived the truth of one of Baldwin’s more famous observations: “Love does not begin and end the way we seem to think it does. Love is a battle, love is a war; love is a growing up.” B+