'Beale Street' is set in the 70s, centred on young couple Tish (KiKi Layne) and Fonny (Stephan James) who have to deal with Tish's pregnancy and Fonny's imprisonment for a crime he did not commit. With the help of their families they're fighting the never-ending uphill battle against an unjust system. The film stars KiKi Layne as Tish, Stephan James as Fonny, Regina King and Colman Domingo as Tish's parents, with Teyonah Parris, Michael Beach and Brian Tyree Henry rounding out a brilliant ensemble cast in memorable roles. The performances are the highlight of 'Beale Street'.
The narrative unfolds in a non-linear fashion, with flashbacks interspersed frequently to peel away layer upon layer, eventually revealing the big picture. With its perfect casting 'Beale Street' plays to its strength right from the start, opening with one of its most memorable scenes with Tish delivering the latest news to her immediate and extended family, which makes for some of the most delightful and harrowing highlights of the entire film.
Brimming with social commentary 'Beale Street' focuses on love against all odds and it is KiKi Layne's central performance as Tish that keeps you engaged throughout. Supported by a strong ensemble led by Regina King, who just won a Golden Globe for her performance, 'Beale Street' truly shines in its quieter moments. Before Jenkins casts society's oppressive shadow and makes the story about man vs. system, we are introduced to and get to experience the characters just as part of a family, dealing with the ups and downs of familial relationships and dynamics. Cementing Tish and her family in such normal and easily relatable circumstances immediately gets the audience engaged and on their side. We know who everyone is and more importantly what they stand for as we dive into the battle to right a wrong.
Jenkins is telling the love story before the incident entirely through flashbacks, which helps to round out the main characters, their relationship and motivation. As beautiful as they are at first they unfortunately fall victim to repetitiveness and this is where the film ultimately falls shorts. Overall the film drags, especially thanks to too many flashbacks that overstay their welcome. But at the same time it also feels rushed in places, most notably near the end. This inconsistent, unfocused execution takes the audience out of it despite great performances by the entire ensemble. My friend and I got tired of the flashbacks about halfway through the film and just wanted to see the plot unfold.
Thanks to the beautiful cinematography by James Laxton and a gorgeous score by Nicholas Britell 'Beale Street' creates a vivid 70s atmosphere and Tish coming out about her pregnancy first to her mom, then her dad, followed by the future in laws is priceless and a great start into the film. It was my absolute highlight. It's a shame that the flashbacks drag the well paced momentum almost to a complete stop in the second act, which makes the rest of the film feel like walking through treacle until you've finally reached the end. If Beale Street actually could talk I hope it would do so in a less draggy and more focused way than Jenkins' film. The great performances, the beautiful cinematography and score, and the still outrageously timely theme unfortunately cannot undo the tedious narrative.