Barry Jenkins’s If Beale Street Could Talk received a rousing ovation when it premiered at Toronto Sunday night, but I’m curious to see how aspects of it will play outside of a festival atmosphere. What will theatergoers make of the film’s reverent, almost dreamlike air? Which loving close-up of KiKi Layne’s face will be turned into a meme first? And, most of all, how will people feel about Dave Franco’s cameo?
Franco shows up about halfway through the movie, wearing what can only be described as Jewface (a yarmulke, cardigan, and tiny mustache). He’s playing Levy, the only landlord downtown who will rent a loft to Fonny (Stephan James) and Tish (Layne). It’s a gigantic space, and Tish wonders how it will ever feel like home. So Fonny and Levy do an impromptu bit of improv, laboring over an imaginary fridge. Tish, a natural scene partner, is won over enough to give them a yes-and: What about her stove? It’s a fun, loose bit in a movie that can sometimes feel frozen in amber, and the audience, at least in Toronto, seemed to enjoy it.
The real polarizing part comes next. We cut to the building’s roof, where Fonny and Tish ask Levy why he’s so willing to rent to a poor black couple. He answers with a sensitive monologue about the power of love, and this is where opinions differ. Is this scene a poignant moment underlining the necessity of human connection to cut through oppressive power structures, as Jenkins clearly intends? Or, as some viewers who found it pretty corny argued at the movie’s premiere party, is it a disruption of the movie’s carefully considered tone to hand one of the most pivotal emotional beats to the guy from Neighbors?
Franco’s not the only cameo in the film: Brian Tyree Henry, Diego Luna, and Pedro Pascal all have small roles, too. But those actors manage to vibe on the movie’s wavelength in a way that Franco doesn’t. Maybe that’s because of his acting, although I don’t think that’s the case. (In his talk back after the screening, Jenkins explained that the actor originally turned in a performance much more in line with his past work, before he got a note that made it click for him.) Maybe it’s his comedy background. Or it could just be that he has a particularly 21st-century face? Whatever the case, he just pops. Still, he can take solace in this: It’s far from the most uncomfortable rooftop scene the actor has been a part of recently.