Two years ago, with only a 2008 no-budget feature and a few short films to his credit, writer-director Barry Jenkins shepherded a cast of unknowns, a rookie editor and a cinematographer best known for shooting Kevin Smith movies to Oscar glory with Moonlight. A film that was both grounded and mythic, realistic and dreamlike, Moonlight took generalities about the African-American experience involving identity and injustice and made them deeply personal, cathartic and transcendent.
In adapting James Baldwin’s 1974 novel If Beale Street Could Talk, Jenkins pulls the reverse trick, turning the specifics of early 1970s Harlem back into free-floating generalities about the African-American experience. The lyrical tone and aesthetics remain, but you can feel the weight of expectations pushing down on If Beale Street Could Talk. The crushing need for this follow-up to be on that same level of “significance” as its award-winning forebear seems to constantly breathe down the film’s neck.
The gorgeous Nicholas Britell score that Jenkins slathers across almost every scene of If Beale Street Could Talk offers the perfect summation of why the film both does and doesn’t work—the music is unspeakably beautiful but also slightly suffocating, both perfectly restrained and a bit much. It does a lot of the heavy lifting establishing and sustaining emotion and mood, while the overwritten script offers one stiff monologue after another.
Instead of the incredibly complex, shape-shifting protagonist of Moonlight, If Beale Street Could Talk gives us Tish and Fonny, soulmate ciphers seemingly defined by their lack of personality. Despite Tish’s omnipresent narration, Tish and Fonny are played by KiKi Layne and Stephan James as watery-eyed blank slates. They’re blurry like the lovers in a Terrence Malick movie; If Beale Street Could Talk certainly reaches for a Malick-ian mythic intimacy, while also indulging a similarly self-conscious artiness.
As the story opens, sensitive sculptor Fonny is deteriorating in prison awaiting trial on trumped-up rape charges, and teenage perfume counter girl Tish finds out that she’s pregnant with his baby. The narrative drifts between present-day scenes where Tish and her family struggle to raise money for legal fees and flashback scenes that flesh out Tish and Fonny’s relationship and show the injustices that tore them apart.
Despite the dull leads, the film features a strong supporting performance from Regina King as Tish’s mother, while serial scene-stealer Brian Tyree Henry needs only a few minutes to walk away with the film as Danny, an ex-convict still scarred by the horrors of prison. There are some marvelously realized sequences, such as the scene where Tish lays out the different behaviors of black men and white men at the perfume counter, but there is a lot of dead air and downtime in between.
With its auburn-tinged images, gliding camera moves, swooning score, elliptical narrative and tragic romanticism, the film often feels like an African-American In the Mood for Love. At its best, If Beale Street Could Talk is lovely cinematic poetry, but the film is rarely at its best.