Swells With Emotion;
Gorgeous And Timeless.
It amazes me that some films come out and struggle to tell their stories and connect with their audience despite many pages of dialogue and many minutes of screen time, and others come along and others come along and pull you in immediately, leaving you in awe for the entirety of their runtime. This is the latter, as I was swept up from the magical opening shot to the quiet yet emotionally explosive closing and will be left to marvel at it in my mind until I can see it again. Simply stated, I loved this film.
It is part tragedy, part triumphant love story, part social commentary, and beyond. The movie seems to be speaking its own intimate language, telling a story that is at once very personal yet widely applicable. The themes of racial tension injustice run deep and strong, but are matched by the power of black love, itself an act of defiance in this setting of 1970s Harlem. The wonderful opening shot, showing central characters Tish (newcomer Kiki Layne) and Fonny (Stephan James) walking together, illustrates with ease the position they find themselves in. An overhead shot sees them strolling down a sidewalk next to a park, with a tall stone wall flanking them. On one side, the wide open possibilities of love, and on the other, the rigid, unmoving demands of a white-dominated society that doesn’t want them to succeed. These two have been friends since early childhood, so the love that has grown is a natural extension; their relationship is the unshakable tree that has spring from the deep, strong roots of a lifetime of friendship. It starts of beautiful, and remains so as outside forces attempt to cut them down.
Layne portrays Tish as both strong and fragile, the effect of being brought up in a loving family amid a tumultuous time frame. She may not understand the injustice that surrounds her, but she understands what it means. For being new to the screen, Layne absolutely knocks it out of the park, coming across as someone with a wealth of experience to draw on. As Fonny, James is also very good, every bit the rock of resolve that young, pregnant Tish needs him to be. Upon being falsely accused of rape and locked up, he threatens to let the cracks of despair grow into deep ditches, but he must continue to be there for Tish, even when he can’t physically be there. Tish’s parents are played amazingly well by Regina King and Colman Domingo, showing grace, love and pain on full display to meet the needs of the story.
Barry Jenkins and his cinematographer James Laxton create close ups so powerful it almost seems unfair. Volumes of words are spoken in the silence of the actors, their faces perfectly framed to convey the necessary emotions. The use of light and shadows, especially in a key scene between Tish and Fonny in his new apartment, are admirable and help give the film a distinctly artistic feel that is entirely its own. The narrative is fractured, jumping around to tell the story, but is never a gimmick, as each scene is treated with absolute care and plays out in a logical way.
Not to be outshined by its visual flare, the film has an incredible score from Nicholas Britell, rising and swelling in waves that sweep you up and wash over you. It compliments the imagery perfectly and is one of the best scores of the year, giving the film a lilting, dreamy quality at times and heavy, dark tones at others. It is marvelous work that deserves all the praise it receives.
This is one of the year’s best films, a standout of artistic quality and social commentary that showcases all the powers of cinema. It is raw, powerful, tender and true, a true triumph of a story that demanded to be told just as much as it demands to be seen.