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