Plain, Simple Tom reviews . . . “If Beale Street Could Talk” (2018)

Moonlight writer/director Barry Jenkins’ latest film takes place in Harlem and concerns young couple Tish (Kiki Layne) and Fonny (Stephan James) who learn that they are about to become parents. But Fonny is in jail for a crime that he didn’t commit and as Tish and her family, especially her supportive mother Sharon (Regina King), work tirelessly to prove Fonny’s innocence, money starts becoming more of an issue and the couple struggle to stay optimistic as their plight grows increasingly hopeless and desperate.

In case you didn’t know, I’m part of the minority that didn’t exactly fall in love with Mooonlight. Granted, after a second watch I appreciated it a little more and there was clearly good intention poured into it but I still found it a bit of a chore to get through and thought that it was too glum, joyless and slow for its own good, with characters that I didn’t find interesting enough to warrant such critical adoration. But now Barry Jenkins is back with a new film, a whole new story that clearly means a lot to him, so would he be able to finally make a believer out of me?

Unfortunately not. Because while Beale Street has a few good things going for it, it didn’t do anything for me and it’s becoming clear that Barry Jenkins is a filmmaker who I just don’t get along with.

For me, the problems that I had with Moonlight came back in Beale Street because Jenkins yet again insists on moving things along at half speed, with many long-winded speeches that had me drifting off slightly and an overwhelming feeling of melancholy and gloom; granted, this is a tragic, real-life story that attempts to show how a young couple’s life can be unfairly destroyed by injustice but as with Moonlight, everyone just seems far too morose and joyless, not helped by Nicholas Britell’s depressing, moody score. I mean, in an early lovemaking scene, the two actors look like they’re part of some tragic opera! Pasting pained and despairing expressions on their faces as they seemingly (and sloooooowly) head into an apparently painful ordeal!

Along with the overused slow motion, Jenkins also relies on his familiar technique of having the actors look directly towards the camera in an attempt to get us intimately acquainted with the characters, to look directly at them as if Jenkins is compelling us to “remember all their faces” and the problem is that this technique is becoming a crutch for him – it’s an overutilised and overly artistic technique that quickly gets exasperating and honestly quite pretentious.

Because unfortunately, I think that that’s my problem with Barry Jenkins – he tries to be artistic and relevant, telling important “human stories” but I think that he tries too hard and his films come across as too serious and, yes, pretentious.

Regarding the story, though it can appear relatively pedestrian to begin with, Beale Street would appear to be about the ongoing and horrifically unfair injustice faced by black people in America but what Beale Street does a little differently is that is keeps its focus on just one couple and examines how a single act of injustice can have devastating consequences for a pair of young people and how it also affects the people around them. Jenkins is attempting to tell the story of a single couple that could exist in the world today and through this, we see that the story is personal and meaningful to the writer/director as he strives to “give a voice to the voiceless”.

The story also alternates between two different times in the couple’s relationship and while this could have made the film messy, it thankfully works very well here – the contrasting back-and-forth has reason because it successfully shows how the young couple were once full of hopes and dreams but are now starting to despair and lose hope in their newfound harsh reality.

The performances of Beale Street are solid without being sensational and above all others, newcomer Kiki Layne carries the film quite admirably as the young Tish; there are plenty of moments when she’s shown to be sweet, caring and innocent but when things get tough, she effectively shows her inner turmoil and conveys sadness and despair as well as anger and bravery when required. Alongside Layne, Stephan James is likeable enough as Fonny and, like Tish, he is an affable chap and he shows a certain sweetness but when he is dragged into his hellish ordeal, he shows signs of breaking as he tries his hardest to stay positive but it’s clear that it’s probably a losing battle; when he says “I’ll be out soon”, it’s obvious that he doesn’t believe what he’s saying and unfortunately, the audience knows that too.

Layne and James are alright together as they’re a sweet, relatable young couple and both clearly attempt to stay positive and loving even in the dire circumstances but although they seem to get on, their interactions didn’t provoke the necessary emotions in me and, though this could have been the fault of the director, the more tender moments between them came across as too cloying and saccharine. “I’ve never been more ready for anything in my life”? Bleh.

In the supporting cast, Regina Hall, Colman Domingo and Teyona Parris are strong as Tish’s family, Breaking Bad‘s Emily Rios has a brief but important role as Victoria, there are some impressive almost-cameos from Dave Franco, Diego Luna and an unrecognizable Ed Skerin, and Brian Tyree Henry (going from strength to strength these days) almost steals the film in the most impressive scene: when, as Fonny’s friend, he recalls how horrible prison life really is, dropping his confidence and bravado as he briefly descends into fear, loneliness and fright.

Technically, the film is effective because the production design is spot on, there are enough instances that demonstrate good use of lighting and colour, and the soundtrack includes plenty of soul and jazz tracks that successfully place the film within a certain time and place. But I can’t get behind Nicholas Britell’s score because, as hinted at before, it tries too hard to be beautiful, emotional and stirring but it often comes across as depressing.

So there you have it. Although If Beale Street Could Talk has received a fair amount of critical praise, it didn’t do much for me and it again proves that Barry Jenkins isn’t quite my tempo. It’s not a bad film by any means – there are a few standout scenes and the director’s intentions are clearly pure – but, though I didn’t dislike it, it’s just not for me.

Beale Street‘s intentions are pure and it’s decently acted and written, but it’s also slightly pretentious, too glum and sluggishly paced for its own good, and Jenkins’ overly artistic direction is a hindrance.

★ ★ ★

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