★★★★★ - A Review by Cameron Kanachki
With his 2016 breakout film Moonlight, Barry Jenkins became one of the best directors in independent cinema. His subdued style of direction focusing on everyday beauty evokes reminders of the films of Wong-Kar Wai, & his affinity for closeup shots of his characters brings flashbacks to the films of Jonathan Demme. And I personally consider Jenkins to be one of my favorite directors of the decade so far.
If Beale Street Could Talk builds off of Moonlight, & is the best film in Jenkins' young career. Based on the 1974 novel If Beale Street Could Talk by James Baldwin, & set in 1970s New York, the film follows Clementine "Tish" Rivers (played by KiKi Layne), a 19-year-old girl living with her mother Sharon (played by Regina King), her father Joseph (played by Colman Domingo), & her sister Ernestine (played by Teyonah Parris) in the Harlem neighborhood in Upper Manhattan. She is in a relationship with Alonzo "Fonny" Hunt (played by Stephan James), a 22-year-old sculptor living with his mother, Alice (played by Aunjanue Ellis), his father Frank (played by Michael Beach), & his sisters Adrienne (played by Ebony Obsidian) & Sheila (played by Dominique Thorne). They also live in Harlem.
In their relationship, Tish & Fonny encounter various people, including Pedrocito (played by Diego Luna), Fonny's friend who is a waiter at a restaurant; Levy (played by Dave Franco), a landlord who owns an apartment block where Tish & Fonny are looking to live in; & Daniel Carty (played by Brian Tyree Henry), a longtime friend of Fonny who has been very negatively affected by his time in prison due to the harsh treatment he received.
One day, Fonny is arrested for the rape of Victoria Rogers (played by Emily Rios). Although the rape did occur, Fonny was not the person that did it, as he was with Tish & Daniel at their apartment. Fonny was likely arrested not because of testimony, but because of the mindset of racist cops, especially Officer Bell (played by Ed Skrein). Victoria was probably misled by Bell & others to believe that Fonny was her rapist through loaded questions. As a result, Fonny is being wrongfully jailed for a crime he did not commit.
Despite help from Hayward (played by Finn Wittrock), Fonny's lawyer, the fight to free Fonny is a tough fight, as Victoria had left New York for her home of Puerto Rico & for her friend Pietro Alvarez (played by Pedro Pascal), due to stress & trauma from the assault, despite some pleas for her to return. But things get tougher, as Tish is now pregnant with her & Fonny's child. Although this news receives happiness from Tish's family & Frank, it receives scorn from Alice & Fonny's sisters, who consider themselves to be superior to Tish & her family, brushing off their child as a product of "sin," as Alice calls it, since Tish & Fonny were not married. The road to free Fonny will only get rougher from this moment on, as Tish must fight to free Fonny before the birth of their child.
The cast is phenomenal. KiKi Layne gives one of the best feature film acting debuts in recent memory. Stephan James is a knockout. Regina King gives the best performance of her career. And the rest of the cast is perfectly cast down to the smallest of roles.
Barry Jenkins' direction is incredible. Jenkins oversees the film with a calm, subdued mentality & a visual style that is so simple yet so luminous.
Barry Jenkins's screenplay is superb. Jenkins does a terrific job of adapting the humor & heart of Baldwin's writing, populating the film with fully 3-dimensional characters that you could encounter any day of your life on the street.
James Laxton's cinematography is gorgeous. Laxton's camerawork is just a marvel to look at, with his bright hues of greens, oranges, yellows, & browns, & his spectacular lighting, especially in the nighttime scenes that gorgeously light up Harlem.
The editing by Joi McMillon & Nat Sanders is excellent. McMillon & Sanders let the events slowly unfold before our eyes, & there is not a single jarring edit throughout the film.
Caroline Eselin's costume design is amazing. The costumes are very simple, but very lovely & very accurate to the 1970s.
Mark Friedberg's production design is fantastic. The attention to detail is impressive here, as the sets transport you into 1970s New York.
And Nicholas Britell's score is beautiful. Led by a piano & violins, Britell's score perfectly underscores the beauty of the film.
This is one of the best films of the year. It's a flat-out masterpiece filled with such stunning beauty. I definitely can't wait to see what Barry Jenkins does next.
If Beale Street Could Talk was seen by me at the Landmark Main Art Theatre in Royal Oak, MI on Friday, December 28, 2018. It is currently in 2 theaters in the Detroit area: the Landmark Main Art Theatre in Royal Oak, MI; & the Emagine Riviera in Farmington Hills, MI; it will expand into more theaters on Friday, January 4, 2019 & Friday, January 11, 2019, before going into wide release on Friday, January 18, 2019. Its runtime is 119 minutes, & it is rated R for language & some sexual content.