BY MICHAEL PHILLIPS
In a Cleveland diner called the Fortyniner, two people who’ve just met on Tinder share a table. While there is no romantic equivalent of a gold rush in progress, something’s in the air.
The man, whose real name we never learn, is a devout Christian who works at Costco. The woman, likewise nameless, has made her career as a criminal defense attorney, and has just lost a murder trial. Her client, we learn, will be executed.
Death hangs heavily over “Queen & Slim.” So does love, and a fierce, reckless embrace of life — Black lives, specifically, but as with any vital film, the specifics point to more than one story or set of circumstances.
Daniel Kaluuya of “Get Out” stars in director Melina Matsoukas’ supple, provocative feature debut, opposite another British performer, model-turned-actress Jodie Turner-Smith (Syfy’s “Nightflyers”).
What happens to these two characters, what they do about it, and how screenwriter Lena Waithe’s story has been filmed and scored to one of the year’s great soundtracks, leads the audience along the path of road movies and lovers-on-the-run ballads of old.
But “Queen & Slim” lives in the present, not the past, and while it’s going to be divisive (I hope!), it’s going to stir up a lot of big emotions in a lot of moviegoers.
Dinner turns tragic
Waithe and Matsoukas worked together on the series “Master of None,” and the scenario for “Queen & Slim” came from an idea by James Frey of factually rickety and Oprah-shamed “Million Little Pieces” memoir fame.
The first 10 minutes or so of “Queen & Slim” is flawless. After dinner, the man’s driving the woman home, and they suss out their conflicting hopes for the rest of the evening.
They argue about music. They laugh. After a momentary swerve behind the wheel, the man’s pulled over at a squad car’s request. The cop is White. The attorney has no patience for how he treats the driver.
Three minutes later, two shots have been fired, there’s a dash-cam video destined to go viral, the officer has expired on the pavement and the man and the woman decide to run.
Famous as fugitives
From this scarily plausible opening, “Queen & Slim” becomes a mixture of powerful, elemental themes and a considerable amount of narrative contrivance.
Each new vignette brings the couple we know from the title as Queen and Slim closer to their escape to Florida, and then Cuba.
Along the way the fugitives become ever more famous, and one character refers to them as “Bonnie and Clyde,” though plenty of other films and characters exert more direct influences on this one.
Director Matsoukas’ credits include a rich array of music videos; the Beyonce video “Formation” is one of the best.
Images from that video re-emerge in this film; other movies, such as “Set It Off” and “Love Jones,” come up either visually or in the characters’ conversation. One traveling shot, filmed from the back of one of the couple’s getaway vehicles, recalls the 1949 classic “Gun Crazy.”
In New Orleans, they seek shelter from Queen’s Uncle Earl (Bokeem Woodbine), a pimp living with his employees. Some stray encounters en route to this one are more lifelike than others; Slim’s scene with a dead-eyed convenience store clerk, for example, is pure contrivance.
Waithe’s poetic streak dominates the film’s use of voiceover narration, as when Queen reveals she’s looking for a man “to show me scars I never knew I had … I want him to cherish the bruises they leave behind.”
Elsewhere, the dialogue feels like daily life and everyday interactions. One mode isn’t superior to the other, but the two sometimes coexist uneasily.
‘Green Book’ scene
There’s a shot of African Americans working the fields straight out of “Green Book.”
That Oscar-winner looks like it was shot entirely along a single, manicured, quarter-mile stretch of Louisiana; “Queen & Slim” looks like the real thing, depicting and soaking up the scenic possibilities of several states, though it’s impressionistic, not straight-up realism.
There’s not much justice and very little peace for the characters portrayed by Kaluuya (terrific) and Turner-Smith (more of a novice, but often affecting, and a singular camera subject).
Does it overreach? Here and there. A crucial sex scene undercuts its own impact by intercutting with scenes from an escalating Ferguson, Mo.-like protest against police violence, involving a character the couple meets along the way.
Yet as the fateful events of “Queen & Slim” unfold, the love unfolds as well, and Dev Hynes’ silky musical score hints at those deeper feelings even before the characters know where their hearts are taking them.