“If Beale Street Could Talk” is director Barry Jenkins’ follow-up to his Oscar-winning “Moonlight”. And there are plenty of carryovers from that film to this one: Intense close-ups and generous use of slow-motion. A supporting performance that’s attracting awards attention, involving a character who doesn’t get much screen time. But what these two films have most in common is a calm, leisurely pace.
“Beale Street” is based on the 1974 novel by author James Baldwin. It’s set in early 70s Harlem and tells the story of the struggles of a young, black couple.
22-year-old Alonzo (Stephan James, who played Jesse Owens in 2016’s “Race”) is in jail awaiting trial on a rape charge – a crime he did not commit. He and 19-year-old Tish (Kiki Layne) have been best friends their entire lives. They recently became romantically involved. As the film begins Tish reveals that she’s pregnant. The goal of both their families is to get the charges dropped and Alonzo out of jail. But that task becomes increasingly difficult.
Jenkins’ narrative travels back and forth between these current events and the early stages of Tish and Alonzo’s blossoming relationship. On one hand, “Beale Street” is a sweet romance – with beautiful music and crisp cinematography evoking the look and tone of the time and place.
But the lethargic pace is, at times, more than a little aggravating. The lack of movement results in stage play-like execution, especially early. You’re waiting for some intensity to elevate the energy level, but such moments are rare.
Instead, Jenkins packs the film with long dialogue scenes filled with dramatic pauses. Some of these are effective. Most are not. Dave Franco and Brian Tyree Henry (whose 2018 has also included “Widows” and “White Boy Rick”) are the standouts of the supporting cast. Regina King, who plays Tish’s mom, gets a couple of showy scenes. Like Mahershala Ali in “Moonlight”, King has become an Oscar frontrunner even though her role is limited.
Some audiences will find “Beale Street” to be an immersive, sultry, picturesque romantic drama with an important racial message. But for me, this is a 60-minute story stretched to two hours, featuring characters, situations and lessons that are all too familiar.
If Beale Street could actually talk, it would likely say, “I’m a lot more interesting than this.”