"Queen & Slim" is a movie we've seen before, whether in the form of "Bonnie and Clyde" or "Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid." Two attractive outlaws on the lam, running from the clutches of the law, their banter, adventures and funny or violent or romantic encounters punctuating an epic and ultimately fatalistic journey.
"Thelma & Louise" is part of that tradition and, much as sexism motivated and contextualized the events of that outlaw picaresque, racism provides the crucial frame for "Queen & Slim." The movie begins with a young couple in a diner, in the middle of an awkward first date: When the young man (Daniel Kaluuya) asks his female companion, an attorney played by newcomer Jodie Turner-Smith, why she finally responded to him online, she explains that one of her clients was just scheduled for execution and she was seeking a distraction. "So you turned to Tinder," he says joshingly.
The characters are unnamed throughout most of the movie, but when a pivotal confrontation on their way home sends them on a desperate escape from Cleveland through the American South and finally to Florida, their identities go through all manner of changes.
Written by Lena Waithe from a story she created with James Frey, "Queen & Slim" engages the familiar conventions of its genre, sending its heroes through a landscape that's not just geographical but social and psychic: As their actions take on the contours of myth, they become avatars of resistance to police violence, racism and a criminal justice system that functions as slavery by another name. But they're also typical young adults looking for love, sorting out how their own pasts and present-day values inform and intersect with their most intimate desires.
Waithe does a skillful job of weaving all of these sometimes contradictory themes through "Queen & Slim," which features touches of knowing humor, especially in the back-and-forth between the odd couple at its center. He's a devout Christian while she's a nonbeliever; he's fundamentally optimistic and gentle, while she's sharper-edged and more cynical. (Don't get them started on musical tastes: "Queen & Slim" features a spectacular soundtrack that ranges from Megan Thee Stallion and Blood Orange to Lauryn Hill.)
Audiences expecting some kind of crime spree or thrill-packed joyride from "Queen & Slim" will be disappointed, and that's the film's core strength: Although a shocking death sets them on their way, and there are more as the story unfolds, violence is never played for glib laughs or action-flick whammies. The moral valence of their actions weighs heavily on the characters, who don't look defiant or self-consciously cool throughout the proceedings so much as aggrieved and deeply ambivalent.
Kaluuya's open, sympathetic face goes a long way toward building sympathy in viewers, even as they may question some of his choices. For her part, the statuesque Turner-Smith brings graceful self-possession to her role as the partner who's smarter, tougher and more wounded (literally and figuratively). "Queen & Slim" is a good-looking, highly watchable film: First-time feature director Melina Matsoukas - best known for her work on "Insecure" and Beyonce's "Formation" video - has enlisted a terrific supporting cast to play the people who help, hinder and comment on the couple's escape, including Bokeem Woodbine, Indya Moore, Chloë Sevigny and Flea, and she makes the most of her southern locations, especially the languid environs of Savannah, Georgia, and Florida. (Some awkward line readings and implausibilities aside, the film's only truly egregious misstep is a poorly judged sequence intercutting a passionate sex scene with a tense standoff between protesters and the police.)
Although Waithe is careful to stage "Queen & Slim's" inciting incident - and provide circumstantial information later - to justify not just her protagonists' actions but their growing status as heroes, she doesn't leave it there. Not everyone approves of them, not everyone demonizes them, and those judgments don't necessarily break down along racial lines. At its best, "Queen & Slim" isn't just a crime drama but a nuanced portrayal of family, legacy and self-preservation - how they're distorted by trauma and history, and how they thrive despite the near-constant threat of annihilation.
That's especially true of relationships between men and women, which are subtly critiqued throughout "Queen & Slim," but also championed in a narrative that privileges love and grief in equal measure. The myriad impulses coursing through the film come together in a gorgeous scene in which Kaluuya and Turner-Smith go on what turns out to be their second date, at a warmly enveloping juke joint somewhere between New Orleans and Savannah. To the people dancing to the sinuous blues music that Little Freddie King plays from the stage - their bodies filmed with rich sensuality by Matsoukas - the lissome girl and watchful young man are folk heroes. But when they come together, at first reluctantly and then tenderly, they are simply themselves. And finally being seen.
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Three stars. R. Contains violence, some strong sexuality, nudity, pervasive crude language and brief drug use. 132 minutes.
Ratings Guide: Four stars masterpiece, three stars very good, two stars OK, one star poor, no stars waste of time.