In “Queen & Slim,” the two main characters are not called Queen and Slim; not that we ever hear, anyway. Unnamed for most of the film, they’re simply two people thrown into a hell and a togetherness they didn’t ask for, finding unexpected love amid the flames.
We meet them on an awkward first date: She (newcomer Jodie Turner-Smith), an Ohio attorney with regal posture, doesn’t like the diner he chose; he (Daniel Kaluuya, of “Get Out”), a genial retail clerk, makes her uncomfortable by praying before eating. On the way home, his car is pulled over by a police officer, for no reason other than that the couple are black. A tense encounter quickly escalates, concluding with a dead cop — shot in self-defense — and two young people fleeing for their lives.
Written by Lena Waithe (“Master of None,” “The Chi”) and directed by Melinda Matsoukas (best known for TV’s “Insecure” and numerous music videos), “Queen & Slim” can be described — as one character refers to the central duo in the film — as a black “Bonnie & Clyde.” (That is, if “Bonnie & Clyde” were post-internet, and their likenesses instantly became familiar nationwide.) But this immersive, devastating film is more than that: It’s at once a taut on-the-run road movie; a mesmerizing reflection of a bitterly divided contemporary America; and a delicate, slow-burning love story. Queen, initially, doesn’t even particularly like Slim; by the end, they are all that’s left for each other.
As they race — from town to town, car to car, hiding place to hiding place — the film takes time for small moments of grace. A sex worker gently helps Queen take down her braids and cut her hair, making her feel safe, just for a moment. A black police officer — if you look hard you can make out the appropriately miraculous name on his badge, Langston — kindly looks the other way. A white horse, so beautiful it might have been from a dream, briefly makes Queen and Slim laugh — and you imagine, achingly, the charming rom-com these two characters could have enacted, in another world. And, in a roadhouse where a bartender’s knowing smile makes them welcome, they dance together, melting into each other’s arms; exhaling, only for a moment.
Turner-Smith and Kaluuya, together in virtually every scene, are magical together, creating a world of two. (Both of the actors, interestingly, are Brits; you’d never guess it.) Not every moment in the film works perfectly — Matsoukas, on occasion, slips the actors’ dialogue into internal monologue voice-over, which mostly just seems confusing — but “Queen & Slim” has a remarkable power. You watch it recognizing the world you know, and wishing you didn’t.
★★★½ “Queen & Slim,” with Daniel Kaluuya, Jodie Turner-Smith, Bokeem Woodbine, Chloë Sevigny, Flea, Sturgill Simpson, Indya Moore. Directed by Melina Matsoukas, from a screenplay by Lena Waithe. 132 minutes. Rated R for violence, some strong sexuality, nudity, pervasive language, and brief drug use. Opens Nov. 27 at multiple theaters.