Friday, January 04, 2019

If Beale Street Could Talk

Is this kind of a ringer to make sure that my first movie seen in 2019 is a good one? Yeah, a bit, although plan A was for it to end 2018 on a good note, but I got lazy on New Year's Eve. Those random vacation days are for the birds. Maybe I'm better off having do-nothing days in the long run, but it doesn't feel that way when there's a long list of things I want to do and see. Still, the pairing of If Beale Street Could Talk and Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse made for a pretty excellent way to start the new year, and you can sell it as a double feature around Brian Tyree Henry supporting performances.

Finally having this movie out in the world does come with an odd feeling that is the opposite of what usually happens, in that at any given time, there is usually some trailer that regular moviegoer either hates from the start or comes to loathe after repetition and which plays before seemingly every film. You celebrate that movie's release even if you never go see it, just because it's the end of the preview. Beale Street, meanwhile, had a fantastic preview, two minutes or so of uplift and anticipation every week. Now you get to see the movie, which we can all agree is a happy result.

One more thing before getting to the review proper: I regularly see a lot of people talk about how awards are worthless/silly/a waste of time, but remember this: There was an eight-year gap between Barry Jenkins's first film Medicine for Melancholy and his second, but only a two-year space between that and Beale Street. That's kind of a big deal, and whatever your personal feeling toward the Oscars may be, it's hard to imagine a case where his nomination and win didn't open a whole lot of doors to make this one.

If Beale Street Could Talk

* * * ¾ (out of four)
Seen 1 January 2018 in Coolidge Corner Theatre #1 (first-run, DCP)

If Beale Street Could Talk is the sort of film that announces in the first couple of minutes that it's got a chance to be special and then never lets the audience down. Writer/director Barry Jenkins builds a warm cocoon of love around the viewers and characters, enough to make the less perfect examples shock, a bit, as well as remind one that sometimes you need that powerful love to counter pervasive hate. A character all but says as much at one point, and while that moment is not quite so polished as the rest of the film, you can't exactly fault it for having a character see what's going on.

The two young lovers are Tish Rivers (KiKi Layne) and Alonzo "Fonny" Hunt (Stephan James), respectively 19 and 22, close since childhood, with marriage seeming like a natural next step though they're confident and certain enough in their love not to need it as validation. It will not be as easy as it has been, though - Fonny has been arrested for a rape despite his having Tish and their friend Daniel (Brian Tyree Henry) as alibis, and Tish is pregnant. Her parents (Regina King & Colman Domingo) and sister (Teyonah Parris) are happy for her, though Fonny's family, by and large, is not, putting the onus for trying to mount a defense and free Fonny on Tish and her family.

A different filmmaker might take James Baldwin's novel, see the plot about the falsely-accused man, and fashion it into something more linear, with a courtroom climax, dogged pursuit, and more indignant examinations of the lengths to which members of the white establishment will go to lock Fonny up for petty reasons. That's not Jenkins, though; both of his previous features have been about experiencing extended moments in a life, with the shift that happens as a result the product of the characters' self-discovery. Here, he tells the story of Tish and Fonny along two separate tracks, with the events leading up to his arrest not necessarily in order, and in doing so he makes the film a story of what love can be rather than just how Tish's love saves and strengthens Fonny; their love belongs to each of them, and as a result Tish never feels reduced to a useful rock for Fonny to hang onto or the reason why he attracts attention. It's a constant, and it can make the switching between time periods feel less like viewing cause and effect than alternate realities.

The roots of the characters' challenges are the same in both, and that pervasiveness is the background of the film - the roadblocks, harassment, the fear of incarceration. Jenkins, like Baldwin, allows for little bits of decency to break through, even in this mid-twentieth-century setting always playing as a bit of a surprise without seeming strange, while frustration becomes overwhelming even if it can't be allowed to be. The story is a testament to quiet strength, given form by Tish's narration, which sounds brittle despite the fact that, when she is bowed, it is almost entirely because of the inescapable biology of pregnancy. There are moments of empathy for even potential that filmmaker Barry Jenkins could have avoided had he chosen to do so and make the story simpler, and though they often precede a character disappearing, there's something true and profound to that: You may fight fiercely for your cause, but you don't fight other victims.

The cast is terrific as well. KiKi Layne and Stephan James make Tish and Fonny glow with love for each other (aided by costumers who dress them as a sunny day in the middle of an overcast world), and capture their fears as well. Layne is placed at the center, and makes Tish's growth an impressive sight, youthful nervousness slowly being replaced with wariness, her voice-over going from wistful to wise as the film goes on. James lets the viewer see Fonny pulled between the bliss that being with Tish brings to the fear he has of much of the rest of the world, with Jenkins making sure that James has a chance to plant ideas in the audience's head about what jail can do or the tension in his family before making it clear later on. The rest are precise and focused, giving their scenes exactly what they need while still feeling like fools who have full lives behind the frame. Regina King is especially great throughout as Tish's mother, and Brian Tyree Henry shows up for five or ten minutes that could be a fine short film on their own and gives the audience complex feelings about his absence the rest of the way. It's a genuinely terrific ensemble, deployed where they can have the most powerful effect.

That effect is empathetic in a way that seems rare. I cannot speak to how much the film resonates with the African-American audiences who would be closer to its circumstances than one such as myself, but it's a measure of just how good everybody involved is that the film is able to communicate so very well.

(Formerly at EFC)

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