I saw a few movies during the busy pre-holiday stretch and never found time to set down my thoughts. Before I forget too much about this particular effort:
I'd say I about 85% loved the movie. It's got a wonderfully moody feel, a great score, some excellent dialogue (including a goodly amount of voice-over I assume is direct from Baldwin), and a number of powerful, well-acted scenes (starting with that feisty standoff between the two families). Barry Jenkins has a singular visual style, one very different from many of his directing contemporaries. Where, say, Cuaron or Scorsese use the camera to take in vast environments, Jenkins zeroes in closer on his characters. I can't recall a recent movie that has as many close-ups of actors, or that employs them to such strong effect. Stephan James and Kiki Layne, in particular, have great screen faces, and Jenkins -- the most humanist of current directors -- concentrates on them to let us see how clear and deep their love for one another runs.
When you think about it, the movies have never been all that good at conveying the power and simplicity of young love. In the 30s/40s, it was all camouflaged (delightfully so) by the snappy banter between couples (typified by Nick and Nora Charles). In the 60s/70s, we got those Elvira Madigan-induced romps in fields (building a snowman became practically a wedding substitute). And of course, post-late 60s, we got semi-explicit sex scenes, which frequently well conveyed animal magnetism, but didn't that often capture unadorned affection. I'd argue that Jenkins, with his lengthy final Trevante Rhodes/Andre Holland encounter in Moonlight, and multiple James/Layne scenes in this film, has captured that simple but elusive thing as well as anyone as in a long time.
So, the 15% I don't love? For one, the film's narrative spine is a bit wobbly. I was mostly engaged within scenes, but at certain points the overall thread got more lost than usual, and I found myself squirming. A small example: Regina King, down in Cuba, spends what seems 3-4 minutes arranging a wig. I presume the scene is meant as some sort of comment on identity-seeking, but it’s a narrative cul-de-sac, since she eventually decides to ditch the effort (and, in fact, doesn’t look much different without it). The whole thing felt like a waste of the audience’s time.
I felt the same, to a greater extent, about another scene…and here I’m going out on a limb, because I’ve heard others praise the scene highly, and our own flipp has singled it out: Brian Tyree Henry’s monologue about what happens to black men in the justice system. I’m not at all critiquing Henry’s delivery – it was eloquent – nor even the words themselves, which were potent. But I sat there just getting more and more uncomfortable, because nothing was happening in the scene; the drama went totally flat. It seemed to me even Jenkins had an inkling this was the case, since at one point he cut away to Kiki Layne outside on the street -- a cut that served no purpose except to break up a scene which felt like it was going on forever. I’m not attempting a hot take here; simply expressing my feeling about a moment where I feared the film would fatally lose me. Fortunately, it soon got back on track, but that moment really shook me.
One other, not-insignificant flaw: the ending really fell kind of flat. I guess I’m glad things didn’t end in full-on tragedy – which it easily could have, given the subject matter. But the resolution felt anti-climactic (especially with the key info delivered in voice-over), the abrupt appearance of newsreel footage had a “Suddenly I’m Spike Lee” feel, and the soundtrack choice for the fade-out was as heavy-handed as anything I’ve seen since Ethel Merman closed out All That Jazz.
To get back to the positive (because, truly, I loved most of this): the actors are pretty terrific across the board. I don’t know why Stephan James isn’t getting any mention in this year’s weakish best actor field; for me, he makes far more impression than John David Washington does in BlackkKlansman. Kiki Layne is a wonderful fresh face, and carries the film beautifully. And Regina King is easily deserving of any awards consideration. No, it’s not a Mo’Nique-like audience-grabber of a role, but it’s a full-bodied, substantial character, and she’s got very strong moments. I assume people will single out her Cuba confrontation as an Oscar scene, but I think she does equally well in her bedtime comforting scene with her daughter – the “Love got you into this” speech is beautiful. The whole cast should be up for SAG Ensemble (along with The Favourite cast – god, SAG botched it this time around).
Bottom line: despite the elements that gave me problems, well worth seeing, and, in fact, by default one of my three or four best films of the year.