REVIEW: ‘Beale Street’ is a visually alluring victory

KiKi Layne and Stephan James star in “If Beale Street Could Talk,” a film that depicts the pregnancy of a young black woman and the flaws of the justice system. (Photo from IMDb)

When director Barry Jenkins sought to translate the pages of James Baldwin’s “If Beale Street Could Talk” into a feature film, his primary concern was fairly capturing the author’s voice. While Jenkins’ latest film is not as poetic or hypnotic as his Academy award-winning film “Moonlight,” his prowess as a director is showcased through the film’s beautiful presentation.

“If Beale Street Could Talk” is a love story between Clementine “Tish” Rivers (Kiki Layne) and Alonzo “Fonny” Hunt (Stephan James). When Fonny is sentenced to jail for a crime he did not commit, Tish must work tirelessly to prove his innocence before she bears their first child.

Whereas “Moonlight” segmented its plot into three distinct chapters, “If Beale Street Could Talk” follows a traditional narrative arc, weaving in and out of present day Memphis. In both time periods, Jenkins masterfully captures the setting,  with scenes ranging from Tish’s house to a lit street on a rainy night.

The film’s structure works well with the plot, but the story fails to flow. Understandably, “If Beale Street Could Talk” is intended as a slow drama, but some drawn-out scenes begin to lose their impact on the audience.

Most of the story was narrated by one character, Tish. While this stylistic choice is unique for Jenkins, Layne delivers Tish’s lines jarringly, compared to the movie’s warm, slow tones. Jenkin’s  use of Tish’s narration makes it reminiscent to the eerie narration in “Goodfellas” — the film abruptly pauses to dead silence when Tish first narrates.

The acting is poignant, although there are a few moments when it felt overdone. In an early argument between the Rivers and Hunt families, the characters act more like caricatures than people. Aunjanue Ellis and Ebony Obsidian’s line deliveries and mannerisms are exaggerated to the point where their performances detract from the scene’s dramatic impact.

Additionally, many of the higher-profile stars like Diego Luna and Dave Franco feel out of place in their one or two scenes. They feel distracting, and drastically contrast with the world Jenkins set for Tish and Fonny.

Had Jenkins not drawn so much attention to their recognizability, then they may not have felt so forced into the narrative. Actors like Luna and Franco are essentially extras and feel like they were put in to add some star power to the movie.

While these moments may be distracting, there are also parts where actors take full advantage of the scenario and truly shine with their dramatic range. Brian Tyree Henry’s performance as Daniel Carty has been heavily applauded, with some insisting that he receive awards attention despite appearing for only 12 minutes.

Once again, composer Nicholas Britell’s score is one of the year’s best. Even though there are some tracks that sound nearly identical, the score ranges from classical to jazz. These two styles attribute to the use of more instruments like piano, bass and horns, which produces different sounds across the tracks.

While some performances and moments are potent in conveying the movie’s themes, it’s the technical elements that are the most consistent in their greatness. Even then, the very few overly dramatic moments of acting and out-of-place stylistic choices suggest that Jenkins is competent. The best films seamlessly balance every aspect of filmmaking, and this movie wasn’t as refined and focused as “Moonlight,” in those regards.

If anything, Jenkins fills “If Beale Street Could Talk” with care and dedication to Baldwin’s original work and, in doing so, cements himself as one of the most talented up and coming directors working in the industry.