Reel Dad: Beale Street - A gentle, meaningful journey

Kiki Layne and Stephan James star in If Beale Street Could Talk. — Courtesy of Annapurna Pictures
Kiki Layne and Stephan James star in If Beale Street Could Talk. — Courtesy of Annapurna Pictures

Gentleness can be challenging to capture on screen.

The movie camera wants to follow an instinct to discover and preserve movement. The lens loves energy. It craves action. And gentleness can be still. Internal. Quiet. Delicate qualities that can toss the best intentions of even a savvy filmmaker.

Director Barry Jenkins knows how to make movies about gentleness. His Oscar-winning Moonlight beautifully explores the layers of human need that define how a young man searches for a way to fit in a larger world. And Jenkins’ latest film, If Beale Street Could Talk, tells a fragile tale of people who will do anything to prove the love they share is real.

If that sounds like the plot of a daytime serial, take a closer look. Working from James Baldwin’s poetic novel, the film uses gentleness to explore substantive issues. The fairness of a judicial system that can favor one race over another. The bias of a police force that may or may not dig for facts when conclusions are easy to reach. The fears of family who find it easier to blame than to accept responsibility for how they contribute to chaos. The realities of lives built on a fragile foundation of love and family support.

This quiet story begins with the celebration of love between a young man and woman. Together, they find a safe place to express what they feel and explore how they love. But the happiness they share is rudely interrupted when the man is accused, and then incarcerated, for a crime he claims he did not commit. When the woman discovers she will soon have his baby, any chance for future security depends on the fairness of a judicial system that refuses to consider his side of the story. The narrative focuses on how the people who love this man do everything they can to try to free him.

There are few big moments in this small film. It simply collects all the ways these everyday people try to live their lives while offering what this man needs. In the simplicity of their routines Jenkins discovers the power of their actions. He carefully reveals how people frustrated by a system others maintain must rely on their instinct and resilience to see the light of tomorrow no matter how dismal today may be. The director reminds us that only when we are true in our beliefs can we truly believe in a brighter future.

Jenkins may be the only filmmaker who could protect material this delicate within a complex movie production process. He shows restraint as a director as he meticulously directs his cast to work from within to make us believe every moment. Never does he let his actors perform. He simply helps them be. And with that subtlety he makes us want to be with them.

At Oscar time, it can be easy to overlook such a gentle film when staring at the choices on the nominations list. But quiet films can make a lot of noise in the emotions they stir. If Beale Street Could Talk may not make the most noise of any movie this award season but it may reveal the most heart.

Film Nutritional Value: If Beale Street Could Talk

  • Content: High. How two young people discover layers of love and truth amidst future uncertainty and judicial bias becomes a beautiful journey.

  • Entertainment: High. While the story may sound somber, it’s filled with marvelous humanity and humor as director Barry Jenkins brings the characters to life.

  • Message: High. No matter what a heart may feel, the film reminds us that, each day, we face the realities of the world in which we live.

  • Relevance: High. Any time older children can visit a time from the past rich with significance is an opportunity for everyone to learn something new.

  • Opportunity for Dialogue: High. Use sharing this film with your older children as an opportunity to discuss how, each day, we can embrace who we are and what we face.

If Beale Street Could Talk is rated R for language and some sexual content. It runs 1 hour and 59 minutes. Five Popcorn Buckets. 

Time Out of Mind: Gere offers plea for help

The voice sounds familiar. We recognize the tone of a man whose polish has graced the screen for more than three decades. But something is different. And when we see the eyes — those clear channels into his soul — we wonder if this could be the same actor who wooed Julia Roberts on a fire escape. Is Richard Gere alone, in a bathtub, in an abandoned apartment in Manhattan?

Much as Barry Jenkins’ If Beale Street Could Talk, the gentle Time Out of Mind explores a world in which a man simply tries to find his way in an unfriendly world. Now, the idea of a major star playing a homeless man on the streets of New York could have been seen as a not-so-subtle attempt to snag award attention. But Gere had more on his mind than walking a red carpet. With no signs of attitude or vanity, he disappears into the crowd thanks to the creative approach of director Owen Moverman. They create a fascinating study of how people get lost in layers of civil bureaucracy despite commitments from city officials.

Time Out of Mind is a deceptively complex film that tells a story we may fear but may not fully understand. Every day, in nearby Manhattan, thousands of people find themselves on the streets, alone, abandoned, adjusting to the realities of lives patched together. By day, they look for small jobs and favors; at night, some secure spots in shelters while others search for safety and warmth. For those at the fringe of a city’s social services, time can become a sentence.

Gere plays a man who may not belong on the streets but finds himself a victim of how the city can lose track of people. Once he mattered to the world, professionally and personally, until bad decisions left him without money to live or paperwork to prove he exists. A disengaged daughter discards his challenges; a friendly saloonkeeper lets him occasionally play the piano. But the man has nowhere to turn. And the city doesn’t know what to do when a man can’t document his life.

Director Moverman establishes this sense of urban isolation by creatively shooting Gere from a distance, letting us discover how the people around him ignore his presence. In a series of scenes shot through windows and across streets, Moverman defines the city as a crowded place where anyone can look through anyone without noticing. And, working with an actor who dares to reveal the layers, the director personalizes the challenge of protecting people who get caught in red tape.

While the film has things to say, Moverman and Gere never forget they are making a movie and not delivering a lecture. Within the serious narrative, they deliver entertaining moments. An unrecognizable Ben Vereen delights as a man Gere encounters at a shelter while Kyra Sedgwick disappears into a cameo as a woman who long ago decided she didn’t have a place in the documented world.

But this is Gere’s movie. And, rather than let Time Out of Mind become a star turn, director Moverman helps the star submerge his personality to create a thoughtful study of how people overlook what they do not want to see. Together the star and director help us see that what we notice can make a difference.

In a gentle way. Much like If Beale Street Could Talk.

Time Out of Mind runs 119 minutes.