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Tessa Thompson in a scene from “Passing.” “Passing” is rated PG-13 for for thematic material, some racial slurs and smoking.

What to make of people who try and break out of the box? Who try to break out of their roles in life?

And, in this world, is such a thing even possible?

Those, in my estimation, are the questions that hang over the thoughtful and elegant period piece, “Passing.”

Adapted from the 1929 novel of the same name, “Passing” tells the story of Irene Redfield, a black woman living in 1920s Harlem, played by Tessa Thompson.

Stopping for a drink at a tearoom on a sweltering day, Irene gazes at the white faces of the other diners around her until one blond woman approaches her and asks if Irene remembers her.

At first saying she does not, it slowly dawns on Irene that this “white” woman in front of her is actually her black childhood friend Clare, played by Ruth Negga.

Asked to explain how she walked into the tearoom arm and arm with a white husband, Clare explains that she has been “passing” for a white woman due to her light complexion.

In introducing her husband, Clare passes Irene off as a white woman as well. And sure enough, yes, Clare’s husband is viciously racist, revealing the deep risk of Clare’s gamble.

Nearly 100 years after the original novel was published, it’s still a gripping “need to know how it ends” idea for a story.

And, although the racial lines of marriage might not be quite as strict today, it still explores the many lenses that we look at one another through, particularly when it comes to race.

Before I go any further, though, I have to point out that, beyond the fascinating storyline, the biggest selling point for this movie for me is the acting.

The movie does well to mostly just point the camera toward Thompson and Negga and let them shine.

I genuinely had to remind myself at times that these were not “real” people on screen, that these were actors. That was how much, for me, they sank into the roles.

Thompson, in particular, never lets her expression waver. There was not a shot in the movie where I didn’t wonder what was going through Irene’s head.

Negga did an astounding job as well, but Thompson’s performance was simply Oscar-worthy.

André Holland also held his own in scenes with Thompson and Negga with a powerful performance as Irene’s husband.

But helping highlight all those performances was also the choice to film the movie in black and white.

Beyond just looking gorgeous in general — there’s one shot, in particular, of a hug in the middle of the movie that just floored me — the black and white color palette really worked to emphasize the actors and their eyes in particular.

Negga’s stare would probably be just as gripping in full color, but it just stands out even more here.

That being said, though the performances shine, the story itself can be a tad thin at parts.

It can be hard to follow how quickly time is passing. We can tell characters are changing, but it can seem rushed at times.

Did Irene go from happy to sad in a day? A week? Two weeks?

At one hour and 39 minutes, the movie felt like it could have used just a few more scenes to piece everything together.

A bit of research shows that the film seemed to have had both a fairly small budget and shorter production time than director Rebecca Hall had hoped, and that’s a shame.

Still, despite those limitations, the performances blend as sweet as the jazz tones that ring through the soundtrack.

I give “Passing” 4 1/2 stars out of five.

Have you seen “Passing?” What did you think? Follow Ben on Twitter at @BenRowePhoto and leave your thoughts in the discussion post there.

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