Writer-director Barry Jenkins follows up his Oscar-winning “Moonlight” with another masterful film, “If Beale Street Could Talk.” Adapted from a 1974 novel by out gay writer James Baldwin, the film opens with a quote from the author about how African-Americans are part of a vibrant, marginalized community. It’s a fitting passage for a film about a couple facing a series of joys and hardships.
The opening scene introduces the central couple, Tish (KiKi Layne) and Fonny (Stephan James) and is insed with colors as bright as their emotions. The loves are young — she’s 19, he’s 22 — and have known each other since they were children. But now Tish can only see Fonny from the other side of a window. In a poignant voiceover, she says that is something that no one in love should have to do. Fonny, it is revealed, is in prison, awaiting trial for a crime he did not commit. Tish has come to announce that she is pregnant. They pledge he will be released before their child is born.
Baldwin’s story certainly sounds melodramatic — and in some respects it is — but in Jenkins’ elegant hands, “Beale Street” never comes across as soapy or maudlin. He toggles back and forth in time from happier days the couple shared to their more difficult, present situation. Jenkins captures the palpable emotions of each moment through the characters’ telling expressions and dialogue. The film never feels preachy — even when Jenkins uses a series of still photographs to comment on how poverty, racism, discrimination and inequality have impacted their lives. Such vignettes speak volumes and add depth to the characters who try to maintain their pride and dignity in the face of oppression.
At times, the film is quite romantic. A scene where Tish recounts when she realized she was in love with Fonny is achingly beautiful. Nicholas Britell’s lush music swells on the soundtrack as the lovers smile at one another on a street or the subway, and they are as full of light as James Laxton’s luminous cinematography reflects. Their affection is infectious. A scene where the couple makes love for the first time is particularly tender.
But Baldwin’s story also has its painful moments. A scene in which Tish tells Fonny’s family that she is pregnant results in hateful outbursts. There are difficult discussions when Tish visits Fonny in prison, and even more despair as Fonny gets into a scuffle that may prompt the more serious trouble he encounters.
Hopeful scenes are juxtaposed with moments of hopelessness, but that is what makes the film so compelling. There is a touching scene in a bar where Tish’s father, Joseph (out gay Philly native Colman Domingo) tries to convince Fonny’s father, Frank (Michael Beach), that they must work together, perhaps illegally, to help get Fonny out of jail. In contrast, a flashback scene where Levy (Dave Franco) shows Tish and Fonny raw space for a possible apartment and acknowledges their love prompts them to shout and howl in joy.
The film’s most complex episode involves Fonny reuniting with his friend Daniel (Brian Tyree Henry) and having a couple of beers. Their conversation, which is full of sorrow, fear and laughter, is ominous and compelling. It includes a line in which Fonny considers leaving America because he feels he is never going to be fully accepted. (This sentiment echoes Baldwin’s personal experience — he decamped for Paris at age 24 for that same reason.) Jenkins shoots this key scene by panning back and forth between the friends, but his showy direction is never distracting.
As Tish, Layne makes an auspicious feature-film debut. Her nuanced performance should earn her an Oscar nomination. In her early scenes, Tish talks in a small, even hesitant voice, but as the film progresses, she gains her strength, and speaks up — most notably when she makes a particular request of Fonny’s lawyer (Finn Wittrock) and explains why. She also conveys considerable emotion looking straight into the camera.
James is equally impressive. As Fonny, he captures the pleasure of a man deeply in love as well as the despair of a man in a bad situation who is trying to be optimistic.
In support, Regina King is outstanding as Tish’s mother, Sharon. Whether she elevates Tish’s mood with an impassioned speech or carries a wordless scene in which she puts on a wig, the actress is mesmerizing.
“If Beale Street Could Talk” opens Christmas Day at the Landmark Ritz theaters.