September 10, 2018

SHOWBUZZDAILY Toronto Film Festival Reviews: “If Beale Street Could Talk” & “Ben Is Back”


IF BEALE STREET COULD TALK (Annapurna – November 30):  Barry Jenkins’ follow-up to Moonlight received a rapturous standing ovation at its Toronto premiere, and it’s unquestionably a beautiful piece of filmmaking,  Jenkins reunited with most of his Moonlight creative team, including cinematographer James Laxton and composer Nicholas Britell, and with a higher budget at his fingers, Beale Street looks and sounds lustrous.  The film also has a broader canvas than Moonlight, with the James Baldwin novel as its source material and a setting in the Harlem of the early 1970s.  Jenkins’ skill with actors remains extraordinary as well, here including relative newcomers Kiki Layne and Stephan James in the leading roles, as well as more familiar faces like Regina King, Colman Domingo and Brian Tyree Henry.  But plot continues to be something that Jenkins seemingly finds less interesting.  Beale Street posits a dramatically-charged situation, with hero Foney (James) behind bars, charged with a rape he didn’t commit, and his true love Tish (Layne) discovering that she’s pregnant.  Once those outlines are clear, however, there’s a limited amount of forward motion, as Jenkins’ script spends much of its time in flashbacks telling us repeatedly how perfect the love between Tish and Foney is, and how threatened their happiness is by racism.  Some of these scenes, viewed on their own merits, are superbly handled, including the sequence with Henry as an old friend of Foney’s.  An early section, in which Tish has to tell first her own parents and then Foney’s about her pregnancy, has a comic liveliness that’s new to Jenkins’ work.  But Beale Street, like Moonlight, seems more compelled by mood than narrative, and while Moonlight gained natural momentum as its protagonist aged and changed, Beale Street flows more slowly.  We’ll find out soon enough if the Festival reception is a sign that lightning will strike twice for Jenkins, despite his arthouse aesthetic.

BEN IS BACK (Lionsgate/Roadside – December 7):  It seems at first as though Peter Hedges’ Ben Is Back is going to fit into a neat indie box, Rachel Getting Married by way of Beautiful Boy.  It’s December 24, and the black sheep of the comfortable Burns family, recovering addict Ben (Lucas Hedges, the filmmaker’s real-life son), unexpectedly shows up for the holiday when he was supposed to be in rehab, putting mom Holly (Julia Roberts), stepfather Neal (Courtney B. Vance), sister Ivy (Kathryn Newton), and his younger half-siblings on edge.  As with the Timothee Chalomet character in Beautiful Boy, Ben is a promising young man whose life is off the rails, and his mother and the rest of the family face the question of whether he can be saved.  But even though Beautiful Boy is a true-life story and Ben Is Back is fiction, it’s Hedges who pushes deeper and more believably, buoyed by tremendous performances from Roberts and Lucas Hedges.  (Roberts is having a remarkable Toronto, with Ben Is Back following Homecoming, proof that even an actress we’ve been watching for decades can have more shades than we knew.)  The story, too, veers into a direction the first half didn’t suggest, as Holly discovers that for all she knew about her son’s problems, she can still be shattered by new truths.  Roberts and Hedges strip their characters’ layers of delusion and social grace off scene by scene, and their work, as well as the film itself, arrives at a place of hard-won honesty that’s difficult but rewarding to watch.

About the Author

Mitch Salem
MITCH SALEM has worked on the business side of the entertainment industry for 20 years, as a senior business affairs executive and attorney for such companies as NBC, ABC, USA, Syfy, Bravo, and BermanBraun Productions, and before that, at the NY law firm of Weil, Gotshal & Manges. During all that, he has more or less constantly been going to the movies and watching TV, and writing about both since the 1980s. His film reviews also currently appear on and In addition, he is co-writer of an episode of the television series "Felicity."