Barry Jenkins is back after winning the best picture Oscar with Moonlight. This time, with an adaptation of the popular James Baldwin novel, If Beale Street Could Talk. I haven’t read the book but a friend who has said it was very faithful. This was an involving film with many themes and layers.
If Beale Street Could Talk’s crowning achievement is the wonderful balancing act it pulls off. There are multiple plot threads and characters it successfully juggles. It’s a beautiful story of first love coupled with a family drama. While at it, it examines race relations and systematic failures of society. So many emotions are entrenched deep in Beale Street. And you feel them all along with the characters. Over the course of the films 2 hours, I felt joy, sadness, and frustration among many other feelings. The authenticity of the characters and writing makes it easy to empathize.
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I had never heard of KiKi Lane and Stephan James before this film. Both anchor the film with heartfelt and compelling performances. Some scenes of them developing their relationship are so well acted and written that they’d make even the biggest cynics believe in the transformative power of true love. They bring tenderness and heartfelt authenticity to their relationship. This makes for protagonists that you completely invest in and want to see succeed against all odds. The supporting cast is stellar all around and creates many memorable moments of their own. Regina King deserves special mention for doing some of the best dialogue-less and expressive acting I’ve seen in a long time.
The film’s writing is a genuine delight. It takes skill to so deftly weave the most tender scenes of love and friendship and have such cackling sequences of conflict that are so witty. An early scene that involves multiple cast members and different ideologies colliding is among the best I’ve seen all year. It drew gasps from the audience and for a moment Barry Jenkins had made something as simple as a dialogue between two families suspenseful and thrilling.
Two of the film’s high-points are the camerawork and score. A variety of filming techniques are employed in capturing scenes and moments dynamically and in interesting ways. The cinematography never shies away from close-ups. The actors look straight into the camera with the raw emotion on their faces on display. The score of the film is beautiful. Elegant and graceful, it elevates key moments and further immerses you into the life of these characters. The biggest irony is that it occasionally manages to paint a sense of being in a fairytale even though the film’s plot is anything but. Reminded me of how “light can be found even in the darkest of places”. In the face of a constant uphill battle and unfavorable circumstances, the protagonists manage to make each other smile.
Unfortunately, not all is perfect. As technically polished and touching this film is, it suffers from serious issues in pacing. Some sequences and plot points move a lot quicker than others. There are scenes that drag on way too long, and their content isn’t engaging enough. This has the unfortunate effect of occasionally pulling you out of the film or wishing for it to progress to the next plot point.
The main character’s narration, while necessary, felt overused. It often felt like if we just saw what was happening on screen, we’d be able to understand all she was saying for ourselves. It would have worked better if it gave further insight into her thoughts and feelings rather than just detail what we were seeing anyway. And as mentioned earlier, the film is juggling multiple characters and giving all of them moments to live. However, we feel robbed at not seeing all of them get closure as a consequence of this.
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Though not flawless, If Beale Street Could Talk is a polished and touching film that had me emotionally invested. Barry Jenkins cements himself as the teller of humane stories from the perspectives we haven’t gotten to see enough historically. There is a lot to like here and I wholeheartedly recommend every film lover check it out.