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Barry Jenkins’ Moonlight pulls you into its introspective protagonist’s world from the start and transfixes throughout as it observes, with uncommon poignancy and emotional perceptiveness, his roughly two-decade path to find a definitive answer to the question, “Who am I?” While the fundamental nature of that central question gives this exquisite character study universality, the film also brings infinite nuance and laser-like specificity to its portrait of African American gay male experience, which resonates powerfully in the era of Black Lives Matter.
A24 will release Moonlight on Oct. 21, following its launch at the North American fall festival triumvirate of Telluride, Toronto and New York. The film looks set to draw considerable attention to its gifted writer-director along with its very fine cast, notably former athlete Trevante Rhodes in an indelible breakout performance. It’s also another feather in the cap for Brad Pitt’s Plan B Entertainment.
The story was originally conceived as a short play called In Moonlight Black Boys Look Blue by Tarell Alvin McCraney. His work for the stage — such as The Brother/Sister Plays and Choir Boy — has often examined the lives of young Black gay men from comparable social backgrounds, winning him numerous awards including a 2013 MacArthur “Genius Grant.” Jenkins and McCraney have similar Miami backgrounds, making this an intensely personal film about a bullied kid growing up in the poor Liberty City milieu at the height of the 1980s crack epidemic. Even so, when one character remarks to another about the ocean breeze that brings moments of stillness and quiet to the hood, there’s an elemental magic in the setting.
In a film laced with superb and widely varied music choices that often play in illuminating contrast to the scene unfolding, Jenkins opens with a subversive wink and a few bars of the silky ‘70s groove of Jamaican singer Boris Gardiner’s “Every N—er is a Star.”
There’s a subtle comment on the codes of Black masculinity embedded in the director’s choice not to introduce his main character first, instead starting with the man who will become a protector and role model for him. A refreshing departure from the usual template for such characters, Juan (Mahershala Ali) is a Cuban-born drug-dealer who runs a tight local crew. In a brief exchange with one of his lieutenants working a corner of the poverty-line community, we see instantly that Juan has a decency at odds with his chosen trade.
The drama is divided into three chapters unfolding during formative times of the central figure’s life and taking their titles from his nicknames as well as his actual name: in order, Little, Chiron, Black. He’s first seen as a terrified 9-year-old kid (Alex Hibbert) fleeing taunting school thugs and seeking refuge in a crack house where Juan finds him. Unable to get the boy to talk, Juan takes him for a diner meal and then to the home he shares with his girlfriend, Teresa (Janelle Monae), where he stays the night. That address becomes a frequent shelter to “Little,” providing him with warmth and lessons in self-worth, particularly when his crack-addict single mother Paula (Naomie Harris) is strung out or busy with a man.
These early scenes are especially beautiful, notably a painful exchange in which Chiron asks Juan to explain the homophobic slur often hurled at him, and then asks direct questions about his mother’s drug habit. One particular high point is an interlude during which Juan takes him to the beach and gives him a rudimentary swimming lesson, teaching him how to float and feel like he’s “at the center of the world.” The contrast between his moments of reprieve at Juan’s airy house and the seesaw of life at home, in a dingy apartment with his loving but wildly erratic mother, is quite moving.
The abrupt disappearance of a key character in the second chapter, for reasons we are left to infer, is saddening. It leaves Chiron (Ashton Sanders), now at high school, even more isolated and vulnerable. The boy he has silently loved since childhood, Kevin (Jharrel Jerome), has grown into a cocky youth, who shares a spliff with Chiron on the beach one night. Jenkins’ delicate yet sensual handling of Chiron’s first experience of sexual intimacy in that setting is exemplary. But any lingering afterglow evaporates when Chiron’s chief persecutor at school conscripts Kevin to beat the hell out of him. That brutalizing experience sparks the victimized kid’s first visceral taste of rage.
The third chapter jumps forward another decade, during which Chiron (Rhodes) has built himself up while serving juvenile prison time in Atlanta. More or less, he has become Juan — same do-rag, same diamond earrings, same muscled body, same line of work — with some additional bling, including double gold grillz. But the same reticent, bruised kid he once was is revealed first in a lovely scene with the rehabilitated Paula, atonement etched across her face, and later with an equally changed Kevin (Andre Holland), who calls out of the blue to seek forgiveness and re-establish contact.
Jenkins’ well-received but little-seen 2008 date-movie debut, Medicine for Melancholy, already showed insight into issues of class and race, as well as an ability to coax fine-grained performances that seemed effortless. Moonlight, which is edited by Nat Sanders and Joi McMillon like an extended dream punctuated by electric awakenings, advances those merits into another league; it’s fluid and seductive, deceptively mellow, and shot through with searing compassion. All the clichés of the coming-of-age movie have been peeled away, leaving something quite startling in its emotional directness. And though the movie is never sentimental, while watching you become aware how rarely we get to see Black male characters onscreen in such an emotionally revealing light.
It also has moments of swoon-inducing romance to equal those of suffering and solitude, feelings deftly magnified by the director’s use of music. The dulcet voice of Caetano Veloso has never sounded sweeter, and if your heart doesn’t skip a beat when Barbara Lewis comes on a jukebox singing “Hello Stranger,” you need to get it checked. Those and other song choices augment a melancholy, melodic score by Nicholas Britell.
Cinematographer James Laxton soaks the film in sleepy, sun-scorched light early on and then burnished, darker tones later, also shifting from unfussy handheld shooting into graceful glides and pans. Immersive intimacy is the key visual note. The clear-eyed, naturalistic look also is punctuated with head-on portraits of principal characters against spare backgrounds, at times in oversaturated colors, a device that feeds the dual embrace of poetry and realism.
While there’s no doubt that Chiron is the film’s focus, Jenkins also doesn’t short-change the secondary characters. There are rich moments for Ali as the unlikely father figure, singer-turned-actor Monae as the idealized alternative mother, and Harris as the far more problematic real thing, a woman whose protective instincts fight with the manipulative cunning of the addict, giving way to unforgiving self-recrimination later on. Holland also is a gentle knockout as the adult Kevin, both careworn and liberated by the hard lessons of experience.
But it’s the sensitivity and the binding, understated rawness of the three remarkable actors playing Chiron — angel-faced Hibbert, whose eyes are like bottomless pools; Sanders, with his touching grace and wounded gaze; and Rhodes, extraordinary in the self-exposure he achieves with minimal outward display — that make the film so emotionally satisfying.
It would be tempting to call Moonlight an instant landmark in queer Black cinema, if that didn’t imply that the experience it portrays will speak only to a minority audience. Instead, this is a film that will strike plangent chords for anyone who has ever struggled with identity, or to find connections in a lonely world. It announces Jenkins as an important new voice.
Venue: Telluride Film Festival; also in Toronto, New York festivals
Opens: Friday, Oct. 21
Production companies: Plan B Entertainment, Pastel
Cast: Trevante Rhodes, Andre Holland, Janelle Monae, Ashton Sanders, Jharrel Jerome, Naomie Harris, Mahershala Ali, Alex Hibbert, Jaden Piner
Director-screenwriter: Barry Jenkins
Story: Tarell Alvin McCraney
Producers: Adele Romanski, Dede Gardner, Jeremy Kleiner
Executive producers: Brad Pitt, Sarah Esberg, Tarell Alvin McCraney
Director of photography: James Laxton
Production designer: Hannah Beachler
Costume designer: Caroline Eselin-Schaefer
Music: Nicholas Britell
Editors: Nat Sanders, Joi McMillon
Casting: Yesi Ramirez
Not rated, 111 minutes.
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