TIFF 2018: ‘Moonlight’s’ Barry Jenkins goes down different path for ‘Beale Street,’ one that critics are glad to follow

The 43rd Toronto International Film Festival dangled the premiere of another highly anticipated title in front of critics over the weekend. “If Beale Street Could Talk” is filmmaker Barry Jenkins‘ follow-up to “Moonlight,” his 2016 Oscar winner for Best Picture and Best Adapted Screenplay.

If reviews can be trusted, it looks as if he might want to check on the state of his tux. Reactions are slightly less effusive for his big-screen version of James Baldwin’s 1974 novel about Tish (Kiki Layne), a pregnant woman in Harlem who fights to free her fiancé, Fonny (Stephan James), after he is jailed for a crime he clearly did not commit.

The visually compelling “Moonlight’s” three-act structure with a trio of actors embodying different stages of a young Florida boy’s struggle with both his sexuality as well as with his mother’s drug addiction was narrative nirvana.

“Beale Street,” however, has its own brand of evocative storytelling power, one that is not always chronological in its approach. David Rooney of “The Hollywood Reporter” writes, “If the movie’s slow burn seems to build toward a powerful release that doesn’t materialize, the sheer beauty of its craft and the heartfelt feeling behind every scene nonetheless command attention. … The film is about black dignity and resilience in the face of pain, but also about the unifying power of love as a survival mechanism.”

As for the performances, Rooney gives kudos to Regina King as Tish’s mother, who goes to great lengths to prove the innocence of her future grandchild’s father: “The marvelous King is a quiet powerhouse throughout, but she’s at her shattering best here, and it’s rewarding to see this superlative actress — so good in TV roles on “Southland,” “The Leftovers” and “American Crime” — being put to strong use in a movie again.”

“Variety’s” Peter DeBruge questions some of Jenkins’ aesthetic decisions, calling out “too-cute period costumes” and “distracting wallpaper choices” while adding, “The movie quotes Baldwin as saying, “Every black person born in America was born on Beale Street,” but this one may as well be located inside a snow globe.”

While he admits some might bristle at the way that Jenkins romanticizes Baldwin’s tale, he also says, ”It will work for some, particularly those for whom Jenkins’ “Beale Street” signifies another prominent stride in the crusade for African-American representation on-screen. If the director’s take on Tish and Fonny’s romance seems a bit too idealistic, that’s merely his way of heightening the tragic situation created by Fonny’s unjust arrest.”

Meanwhile, Jason Bailey of The Playlist gives the film a flat-out rave: “If Beale Street Could Talk” feels like such a miracle. In a time when the frustrations of mainstream movies have caused so many a modern filmgoer (and filmmaker) to long for the cinema of the ‘70s — and idealize it somewhat out of proportion — here is a director whose work has the emotional immediacy, pressing yet offhand, of the best of that period.”

The reality of a non-festival crowd’s reactions will arrive soon enough. But, for now, it seems likely that Jenkins will be part of the awards season equation again.

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