Moon­light

Pasatiempo - - CONTENTS -

MOON­LIGHT, com­ing-of-age drama, not rated, Cen­ter for Con­tem­po­rary Arts and Vi­o­let Crown, 3.5 chiles

How any­one sur­vives grow­ing up is both a mys­tery and a tes­ti­mony to the re­silience of the hu­man spirit. Com­pound the usual trial with the chal­lenge of be­ing a small, sen­si­tive African Amer­i­can boy of un­cer­tain sex­u­al­ity in Mi­ami, liv­ing in poverty with no fa­ther and a drug-ad­dicted mother, and man — it’s haz­ardous duty just get­ting from one hour to the next, much less mak­ing it through to adult­hood.

When we first meet ten-year-old Ch­i­ron (Alex Hib­bert), he’s on the run from bul­lies. Fu­eled by adren­a­line, he races through va­cant lots and over fences to find an un­locked door in an aban­doned project apart­ment where he can hide. His pur­suers pound on the door, yell taunts, and fi­nally tire of the sport. A cou­ple of things strike the viewer: One is the bleak com­fort of tem­po­rary safety wher­ever you find it, any des­per­ate port in a storm. The other is a cu­rios­ity about those other boys, the bul­lies. Do they ever find them­selves on the frag­ile end of the anx­i­ety and ter­ror of this grow­ing-up jun­gle? There’ll be the hint of an an­swer in the movie’s mid­dle sec­tion.

The wary kid, known here by the nick­name “Lit­tle,” is found by a kindly Cuban Amer­i­can crack dealer named Juan (Ma­her­shala Ali, House of Cards), who slowly wins Ch­i­ron’s con­fi­dence and takes him un­der his wing. There’s al­ways some­thing a lit­tle un­com­fort­able about a grown male stranger’s in­ter­est in a lit­tle boy, but that is not the slant taken here by writer-di­rec­tor Barry Jenkins (Medicine for

Me­lan­choly, 2008). When Ch­i­ron asks what “fag­got” means, Juan answers, “It’s a word to make peo­ple feel bad about be­ing gay.” Juan be­comes a fa­ther fig­ure to the kid, and his girl­friend Teresa (Janelle Monáe) takes on a ma­ter­nal role, re­la­tion­ships not en­tirely wel­comed by Ch­i­ron’s strung-out mother Paula (Naomie Har­ris), who is a cus­tomer of Juan’s. In one lyri­cal scene, Juan teaches the boy to swim at the beach, which in­vites a few metaphors, the most ba­sic be­ing learn­ing to keep your head above water. Juan is a good man in a bad line of work, and Ali wraps many threads of char­ac­ter into his mag­netic por­trayal. But when the kid asks him if he sells drugs, there’s a long painful pause be­fore he nods and dis­ap­pears from the pic­ture.

In the mid­dle sec­tion, Ch­i­ron is a gan­gly mis­fit teenager (Ash­ton San­ders). His best, and per­haps only, friend Kevin (Jhar­rel Jerome) — a kid who has had much bet­ter suc­cess in ne­go­ti­at­ing the ado­les­cent rapids of fit­ting in — sticks by him. But the bul­lies are still present, and they force a rift be­tween the two in a par­tic­u­larly bru­tal and heart­break­ing way. Ch­i­ron’s act of re­venge against his chief tor­men­tor pro­vides a con­clu­sion to this chap­ter and a bridge to the fi­nal one.

The Ch­i­ron of the third act (Tre­vante Rhodes) has grown to mus­cu­lar man­hood. His new self, barely rec­og­niz­able from the skinny ado­les­cent ver­sion, is the prod­uct of some jail time and a lot of body­build­ing. He’s got a chis­eled, strap­ping body, a set of gold grills on his teeth, a do-rag on his head, and he’s liv­ing in At­lanta, trap­ping (sell­ing drugs). But he still has those hurt, haunted eyes.

Out of the blue, he gets a phone call from Kevin (An­dre Hol­land), a voice that seems to reach out from a past life. And so he makes his way back down to Mi­ami and they meet up again, af­ter many years, in the small diner where Kevin cooks. Kevin’s now a fa­ther, di­vorced, set­tled into a de­cent, ac­cept­able walk of life.

All of Moon­light — adapted from Tarell Alvin McCraney’s short play In Moon­light Black Boys Look Blue — is sen­si­tive and ex­quis­ite, but in this third part, Jenkins re­ally hits his stride. For most of it, the two men sit in a booth in the diner and talk, and the pain and won­der of re­dis­cov­ered friend­ship and re­mem­bered in­ti­macy fills in the years.

Jenkins makes ter­rific use of pointed and ef­fec­tive songs on his mu­sic track, and en­hances a claus­tro­pho­bic sense of a world from which there is no es­cape with up-close, hand-held vi­su­als. He gets great work from his tag team of ac­tors as Ch­i­ron moves from child­hood to the adult world.

Moon­light isan im­por­tant con­tender in an awards sea­son still smart­ing from last year’s #Os­carsSoWhite con­tro­versy. It’s a mov­ing story of grow­ing up and com­ing out in a ma­cho, des­per­ate world. — Jonathan Richards

On the fence: Ash­ton San­ders

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