Directed by Barry Jenkins. Starring Mahershala Ali, Naomie Harris, Trevante Rhodes, André Holland, Ashton Sanders, Janelle Monae, Jharrel Jerome, Jaden Piner, Alex R. Hibbert, Shariff Earp. (2016, R, 110 min.)
REVIEWED By Steve Davis, Fri., Nov. 4, 2016
At long last, Moonlight: a stripped-down, emotionally raw movie about the lamentable destiny of so many young African-American men today. From birth, a cultural umbilical cord wraps itself around their necks like a noose that grows tighter each year, a vicious circle of absent fathers, broken families, drug addiction, incarceration, and recidivism from which too few escape. The gleam cast by Moonlight illuminates the challenges these individuals face with a delicate clarity, in a way we’ve seldom (if ever) experienced. This is no jacked-up ghetto melodrama, or preachy polemic on race, or reverent look-back at a chapter in history. Rather, it’s a deeply personal film about male identity in the sun-drenched hell of the Dade County housing projects, circa the 1980s. It’s the story of a sensitive boy, then a confused teenager, and finally a hardened young man named Chiron, who struggles to fit within this world he inhabits. A common refrain echoes through the course of film: Who are you? Who do you want to be? The possibility of self-actualization lies silently out of reach as the increasingly introverted Chiron finds himself unable (possibly afraid) to answer those questions. He knows he’s different from others (“What’s a faggot?” the 10-year-old disarmingly asks one evening, after being taunted by the neighborhood bullies), and yet realizes he can also be the same. Chiron’s pain, his loneliness, his longing – they are powerful stuff in Moonlight. They stealthily sneak up on you and burrow beneath your skin before you know it.
Inspired by Tarell McCraney’s play, In Moonlight Black Boys Look Blue, the script by director/screenwriter Jenkins divides his focal character’s life into three chapters, each corresponding to the name or nickname (Little, Chiron, Black) defining him at a specific age. (Cinematographer James Laxton distinguishes each chapter visually.) This structure makes for an episodic narrative, but the continuity doesn’t falter despite the jumps in time. There’s relatively little conventional drama here, but no dearth of memorable scenes. When the 10-year-old Chiron (Hibbert) discovers his father figure, Juan (Ali), is the drug dealer supplying the crack that has made his mother a neglectful monster, the boy leaves his caretaker’s home in confused anger. Years later, Chiron (Sanders) smokes a joint on a moonlit beach with his longtime crush and friend, Kevin (Jerome), a swaggering 16-year-old who’s always had his back, and the two furtively kiss, culminating in a relatively chaste sexual encounter in the sand. In the third act, a buff and muscled twentysomething Chiron (Rhodes), freshly paroled and back on the streets selling drugs, visits his clean and sober mother, Paula (Harris) in a halfway house, and she apologizes for his terrible childhood and (sensing what he’s up to) professes her unconditional love. While all of the performances in this movie are superb, Harris’ turn here is hands-down award-worthy.
But the third act’s final scene between the grown-up Chiron and Kevin (a particularly good Holland), which memorably begins in the Miami diner where the latter works as a short-order cook, is the film’s beautiful centerpiece. The conversation between the two men, who haven’t seen each other in 10 years since a terrible altercation in high school, is elliptical at first, as they dance around the reason for Chiron’s unannounced arrival from Atlanta. After a reticence to open up for the entirety of the film, a near-trembling Chiron finally speaks from his heart, even after knowing that the motive for his visit will unlikely pan out, given Kevin’s apparent heterosexuality. It’s a heartbreaking moment, and Jenkins stages the entire scene with a palpable sense of unrequited romance. Truly, madly, deeply: There’s magic in this Moonlight.