Some period-piece films are gold-toned nostalgia poems, bathing us in warm tones and infusing us with a sense of wistful yearning for days gone by.
Ah, those were the days, we think. (Even if they weren’t really the days.)
Barry Jenkins’ searing and sharp and gripping “If Beale Street Could Talk” is set in the Harlem of 1971, and indeed there are moments when we smile at the pop-culture touchstones, from the fashion to the cars to the vibe of the time. But we don’t come away from this experience wishing things could be more like they were back in the day. We lament that the horrific injustices inflicted on innocent individuals and the bigotry behind such injustices are still so prevalent in today’s America.
Based on the 1974 work by the invaluable James Baldwin and adapted for the screen by Jenkins (who set the film world on fire two years ago with the Oscar-winning “Moonlight”), “If Beale Street Could Talk” features some of the most artfully crafted dialogue and some of the finest performances of any movie this year. There are moments of such electric intensity you’ll have to remind yourself to breathe when the scene is over.
Newcomer KiKi Layne makes a spectacular screen debut as 19-year-old Tish, who will tell us the story through her eyes, her experiences, her life, her world.
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After a tender and touching and wholly authentic courtship period with Fonny (Stephan James), a talented aspiring artist in his early 20s, Tish is truly, madly, deeply in love with Fonny — and Fonny feels the same way about her.
They will spend their lives together. They will make a family together.
“You ready for this?” says Tish.
“I’ve never been more ready for anything in my whole life,” answers Fonny.
But soon Tish is telling us how she wishes nobody would ever have “to look at anybody they love through glass,” and she’s talking about the cold thick glass separating inmates from visitors.
Fonny is in jail, falsely accused of rape, set up by a racist cop with a grudge. The victim — who was raped, but not by Fonny — has fled the country and returned to her home in Puerto Rico and will not be coming back to testify, which means the case is going to boil down to Fonny’s word against the word of the policeman, and to say the outlook is bleak for Fonny and Tish is, alas, an understatement.
We jump back and forth in time, flashing back to the early and beautiful days of the romance, then to the incidents that led to Fonny’s arrest, then to the fathers of Fonny and Tish risking their own freedom while trying to raise defense funds by just about any means at their disposal.
In one of the most powerful scenes in any movie this year, Tish’s parents invites Fonny’s family over so they can share the news of Tish’s pregnancy. (By this time, Fonny is behind bars.) Fonny’s melodramatic, Bible-thumping mother and his prissy, judgmental sister are horrified by the news and tear into Tish with stunning cruelty — but oh, things are just getting started, because Tish’s mother (Regina King) and Tish’s sister (Teyonah Parris) won’t have anyone talking that way about their girl.
Regina King is blazingly good in a nomination-worthy performance as Tish’s mother. Even when there’s fire in her eyes as she defends her daughter, you can see her primary motivating force is love. The love she has for her child, and for the child of her child.
Bryan Tyree Henry adds spark and dry humor as Fonny’s old friend Daniel, who’s back in the neighborhood after a stint in prison. Kicking back with Fonny over a few beers, Daniel talks about the beatings he took in prison, and while Fonny is sympathetic, it’s a story from another world, a world far removed from Fonny’s existence.
Of course, Fonny has no idea he’ll soon wind up in that dark world, even though he did nothing to deserve that fate.
The non-linear timeline actually enhances the emotional punch of the story, as there are times when we know more than the characters know, and our hearts break for them because we know their joy and their optimism will not last long.
This movie works as a timeless romance, a family drama, a legal thriller and a poignant social commentary.
A great American novel has been turned into a great American film.
‘If Beale Street Could Talk’
Annapurna Pictures presents a film written and directed by Barry Jenkins, based on the book by James Baldwin. Rated R (for language and some sexual content). Running time: 119 minutes. Opens Tuesday at local theaters.