Watson Reviews: If Beale Street Could Talk (Spoiler Free)

Barry Jenkins follows up his Best Picture winning film LaLa Land Moonlight with a smart adaptation of the 1974 novel by James Baldwin of the same name.  This is the last film I will see in a year where I saw more movies than any other year in my life.

Would it be a worthy capper on the year?

WHAT IT’S ABOUT:

Tish and Fonny are a young couple who are expecting an out of wedlock child, but sadly Fonny is in jail awaiting trial for wrongful assault charges. Through a series of flashbacks, Jenkins tells the story of the pair’s courtship and love before the events that led to Fonny being arrested.

While Lonny faces the specter of trial, Tish navigates life in 1970s America with help of her loving family.  Every character explores racial and economic injustice stacking the deck against them; a problem that obviously continues to this day.

At Tish’s side most of all is her mother Sharon; a true force of nature. Together the family tries to prepare for Tish’s baby and help Fonny build a defense against the charges he faces.

WHAT WORKED:

  • Best Supporting Actress has a front-runner. Regina King (Jerry Maguire) was really amazing in a film full of great performances.  She has many beautiful scenes, including some Oscar worthy monologues, but it is her non-verbal orchestration of an early scene in the film that showed her powerful range.  Besides her delivering a worthy performance, I want her to win because I always pull for ex-sitcom stars.  King was a child actor from the Marla Gibbs sitcom 227 and has carved out a nice career in the 30 years since.
  • The rest of the cast is exceptional as well!  Newcomer KiKi Layne is a great emotional center as Tish.  Stephan James (Race) is equally impressive as her love, Fonny.  The rest of Tish’s family add a ton to film in the form of her sister Ernestine played by Teyonah Parris (Dear White People) and her dad Joseph played by Colman Domingo (Selma).  Brian Tyree Henry (Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse) has a powerful by small role as Fonny’s friend who just got out of prison.
  • Jenkins directs one of the most amazing scenes of the year. Well, it is really a scene broken into two parts.  When Tish tells her family about the impending birth of her and Fonny’s child, King and the rest of the family deliver beautiful, nuanced performances. Then, when they invite Fonny’s family over to break the news, the drama shifts to an even higher level of intensity.  If Jenkins wins Best Director, and he should certainly be nominated, these scenes will be the reason why.

WHAT DIDN’T WORK:

  • Sometime Jenkins is too deliberative.  It is the same complaint I had about Best Picture winning Moonlight, but Jenkins really takes his time with every shot.  I like a lingering, long shot but Jenkins does it every…single..time.  I think there was like 50 minutes of content in this film with 2 hours of runtime.  Sometimes it works.  Sometimes it drags. I wish he’d use the directorial choice a little more sparingly.
  • The light is too drab in bright scenes. Another knock I had about Moonlight pops up here, in that Jenkins is obsessed with low light filters.  I understand the need if it is a scene where the darker lighting would impact the story (one shot where Fonny is creating his wood art is quite effective) but when light would be expected (e.g.- outdoor scenes) it just makes it hard to see.
  • The narration effects didn’t work for me. When Tish is giving a voiceover, it sounds like she is in an echo chamber.  I understand what Jenkins was trying to do with it, but it made it very difficult to hear.  A good idea doesn’t always work in execution.  Of course, I have just said it was too dark and wasn’t loud enough. I might just be old…

FINAL THOUGHTS:

I did like If Beale Street Could Talk a little better than his previous film Moonlight… though I think no performance here matches the power of Mahershala Ali’s Oscar winning role.

This was a strong script with amazing performances.  Jenkins knows how to draw out the best in his actors and that is a reputation that will keep getting him great projects with A-list casts.  Especially when KiKi Layne becomes a star…as she deserves to be.

This is Jenkin’s third film and it seems like he is now one of those filmmakers who will always be in the running for awards.  This film should be part of the Oscar conversation for sure!

Overall, I give If Beale Street Could Talk a score of 9.5 “I Hope It’s a Boys” out of 10.

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