Want another opinion? Check out Conrado's thoughts on the film!

I have not read James Baldwin's 1974 novel If Beale Street Could Talk, so I cannot say if the new film adaptation written and directed by Barry Jenkins is especially respectful (it's the first English-language feature film taken from Baldwin's works). I can certainly say that it feels very respectful, and not to its overall benefit. Like many a literary adaptation down through the years, the film is suffused with a heavy sense of importance, a feeling of having desperately wanted to get things exactly right, and so every frame, every beat, every line of dialogue feels like it has been perfectly manicured, at some cost to its vitality. Jenkins is a great manicurist, to be sure, and the film is frankly gorgeous, in cinematography and costume and set design. But I have very much the same feeling I got watching his rapturously-beloved 2016 breakthrough Moonlight, that here is a movie made by a director who has to labor very hard to get where he wants, and doesn't know how or doesn't care to hide his work afterwards. It feels like a very made film. A very well-made film, but there's so much fuss and polish that I basically didn't feel anything but a muted, abstract appreciation, and having come up with the same response on two films in a row, I think I need to admit, with some modest discomfort, that I think I just don't "get" Barry Jenkins.

Anyway, let's leave that aside. Beale St. in Memphis, Tennessee is here used as a metaphor for the historical experiences of Black America, but the film itself takes place in Harlem, at a time never quite specified, by design. It is an expressly timeless story, one whose details could occur at pretty much any point between Reconstruction and the present day, and whose emotions are more universal still than that. 19-year-old Clementine "Tish" Rivers (Kiki Layne) and 22-year-old Alonzo "Fonny" Hunt (Stephan James) are deeply, overwhelmingly in love, and engaged to be married, until Fonny is arrested for a crime he didn't commit. With his accuser having disappeared, he's not going to be tried anytime soon, which means he exists in a state of limbo. Shortly after the arrest, Tish learns that she's pregnant, and so she decides to dedicate herself to freeing him before the child arrives, to the mild concern of her family, and the outright resistance of his family, who never much cared for the relationship in the first place.

The most interesting thing that the film does with the story, which I take to be Jenkin's innovation, is to fragment this into two timelines: one that proceeds chronologically through Tish's amateur investigation, one that shifts throughout all the time the two have known and loved each other, since they were children. It's not quite as easy as saying that these flashbacks are simply motivated by what happens in the present; they are, but not always in some one-to-one "this ice cream makes me think of that ice cream two years ago" sort of thing. It's more that Tish (and sometimes Fonny's) memories are all swirled up, and one never can be sure what event will randomly trigger some strong memory, or how memories will chain together. This structure of following along the semi-arbitrary path of remembering isn't new in and of itself, but Jenkins offers a particularly smart, suggestive version of the idea, portraying Tish and Fonny's relationship as a series of strong impressions rather than concrete events, which is of course how memory actually works.

Coupled with that, the film's aesthetic is an interesting mix of period realism and precise, subtle stylisation. The film looks more or less the way the world looks, but in a heightened, subjective way. Cinematographer James Laxton, doing far less showy but far more effective work here than he did in Moonlight, creates a beautifully soft world in which there are no sharp edges, only gradations of focus. For the most part, the film uses a shallow depth of field to quietly guide us to the important character details, using blocking in layers and then presenting those layers in sequence to let us experience the world the way Tish does. That's the graceful, elegant part; it's then punctuated by bold use of direct address, as character profess their feelings directly to us. The film plays this trick quite often, but it never loses its potency, in part because direct address is such a powerful gesture inherently, in part because Layne reserves all of her most expressive facial acting for these moments.

The technique is pretty great, then. It's just... heavy. The biggest problem I have with Beale Street, which contains several smaller problems within it, is that it is very enormously aware of the weight of history: the weight of being the first Baldwin adaptation, the weight of telling African-American love stories, the weight of telling stories about unjust criminalization of African-American men (which causes the movie some problems: the crime Fonny didn't commit is rape, and given the present cultural climate, it's no surprise at all when his accuser (Emily Rios) is given a chance state her perspective and does so with great emotional furor and passion. If there's a way to to square the dramatic impact of "this was a false rape accusation" with "let survivors tell their stories", the film has no clue how to go about doing that). This plays out exactly the way one hopes it wouldn't: lots of solemn, slow scenes with low lighting, character staring at each other intently without speaking, Nicholas Britell's beautiful and sad jazz score doomily marching its way across images and making them seem somehow even more grave than they already did.

Worse yet, the characters seem to be aware that they are in an Important Film. Beale Street boasts several great performances by great actors - Brian Tyree Henry (who is quickly approach "I would walk into traffic for this man" levels in my heart) and Regina King are the easy choices for best in show, Diego Luna the easy choice for "yes, well done, but why are you here?" - but those great performances tend to be in service to very, let us say, earnest writing. This is the kind of script where characters say exactly what is on their mind, and it is generally very well-formed and profound. These are people who are very aware that every moment of their existence is freighted with historical weight and symbolism, and it's just such a suffocating way to go about making a movie. Add in the omnipresence of voiceover from Tish, and the result is a film that feels much too addicted to beautiful literary prose for its own good. There's a lot to admire at every stage of the film's psychology and craft, but it's too damn airless to have any real emotional vitality; it is a respectful pantomime of human experience rather than an expression of it.

All of which is exactly what I felt about Moonlight, so do feel free to completely disregard everything I've said here.