Based on the novel by James Baldwin, a young black couple (KiKi Layne and Stephan James) in New York in the '60s fall passionately in love, but are soon separated when one becomes pregnant and the other is sent to jail for a crime he did not commit. With just a few short months until the child is to be born, Tish (Layne) must do everything in her power to see her husband exonerated.
'If Beale Street Could Talk' opens with a camera floating over two young lovers - Tish and Fonny - as they walk through the streets of New York, the colour seeping out of every frame as they quietly walk hand-in hand as Nicholas Britell's sweeping music plays over it. From the first frames, you can see that Barry Jenkins directs with a clear vision and executes it with a grace and beauty like few can. There's a real aesthetic to it; gorgeous and elegant in an effortless way that speaks to an assured talent.
Baldwin's lyrical descriptions fold beautifully into Tish's narration of the story, and the dialogue has all of the source novel's intonation and poetry. Again, like the visuals, it's all so effortlessly beautiful and rich with life and texture that it just sucks you in and pulls you along the story. The chemistry between Kiki Layne and Stephan James is potent, and like in 'Moonlight', the camera pauses dreamily to take in every aspect of their face as they fall in love with one another. When it shifts to the surrounding family, notably Colman Domingo and Regina King who play Kiki Layne's on-screen parents, the relationships are lived-in, authentic and real.
Reteaming with cinematographer James Laxton and working off his own adaptation of Baldwin's novel, Barry Jenkins is able to craft together a lush and sensuous variety of images and moods that stay with you. There's one scene with Brian Tyree Henry and Stephan James that begins so gently and easily, weaving a story from a simple exchange into the crux of both the movie itself and the experience of being a black man in America. It's haunting, and the way that Jenkins treats the scene with such care and attention - while making it seem so natural - really is astounding. The same goes for another scene between Dave Franco, Kiki Layne and Stephan James. Again, it starts off as a sort-of nothing scene, but the way in which it plays out, mixing the hopeful nature of their love and the likelihood of tragedy that's about to come down on them, makes it so much more.
Beyond all this, what carries 'If Beale Street Could Talk' is both the strength of the performances and the gracefulness of Jenkins' direction. There isn't a single scene or moment throughout where it's not hitting exactly where it's supposed to, and while the ending may not be the most fulfilling, it is believable in the context of what has come before - and will haunt the audience for long after the credits have rolled.