Release Date: November 4th, 2016 MPAA Rating: R
Director: Barry Jenkins Actors: Mahershala Ali, Janelle Monae, Naomie Harris, Jaden Piner, Ashton Sanders, Alex Hibbert, Jharrel Jerome, Trevante Rhodes, Andre Holland
t may start with encircling camerawork in the vein of Michael Bay, but “Moonlight” has an entirety different agenda with its dizzying, revolving viewpoint. There’s still a sense of spontaneity and tensions rising to a breaking point, but the sweltering Florida heat targets a very specific slice-of-life tale about an often overlooked – or certainly under-represented – fragment of American culture in modern cinema. It’s superbly acted and expertly structured, peeling back the layers of an intimate portrait of a boy as he’s molded and manipulated, sometimes tragically, by his formative years.
Little Chiron (Alex Hibbert) is scrawny and timid, making him the constant target of bullies. When he’s chased by a group of kids into an abandoned, boarded-up dope hole, he’s liberated by Juan (Mahershala Ali), a kind man who sees quite a bit of his own upbringing in the disaffected child. Juan takes Chiron out for lunch, and then back to his house, where his equally generous girlfriend Teresa (Janelle Monae) awaits. Though Chiron says nothing to either one of them throughout the day, as if petrified by strangers or traumatized by the unexpected act of benevolence, he finally reveals that he does not wish to return to his own home in Liberty City until the following morning.
Chiron’s situation becomes more complicated when it’s revealed that his mother Paula (Naomie Harris) is abusive and a drug addict – purchasing her freebase from Juan, who deals to a great many people in a large swathe of the community. Though Chiron becomes aware of the destructive behavior and the unfortunate relationship, he’s inspired to continue to return to Juan’s place, in turn prompting the surrogate father figure to take the youngster swimming or simply to provide a haven for when Paula is too irritable to have her son around. It’s in many of these moments – where something as innocuous as driving, or bathing, or playing soccer transpires – that the film is given a boost of poetic grandeur through classical music. Elegant notes preside over scene transitions, elevating what could have been mere routines for the definition of explicit existences into breathtaking, thought-provoking art. The most inconspicuous presence suddenly has great power.
“At some point, you gotta decide for yourself who you want to be.” Juan’s guidance has a significant influence on Chiron’s evolution; perhaps as much of a contribution as Chiron’s pal Kevin (Jaden Piner), who manages to have his feet in more than one school clique. In these earlier scenes, the characters have the most impact, as they engage in heavy-hitting scenarios of bullying, fitting in, and coping with the abundance of drugs, followed by frank conversations about sexuality that reveal one of the most staggering themes in the picture: identity. As the timeline jumps into the next phase of Chiron’s life – that of high school – the struggles remain very much the same. He (now played by Ashton Sanders) must still contend with antagonizers and deciphering his public image (or reputation), though his tribulations in this rarely explored coming-of-age environment more closely resemble raw, brutal survival than the awkward adolescence frequently depicted in teen comedies.
The astonishingly intricate foundations of emotions, sexuality, and behavioral pretenses only grow more complex when Chiron enters adulthood (finally portrayed by Trevante Rhodes). This arc of maturation is convincing and monumental, particularly in the way that all of the positive and negative interactions and relationships have fashioned Chiron into not only an amalgamation of these people and experiences, but also a tormented individual who works to hide the less accepted, adopted qualities from his peers. Only with his mother, who eventually seeks forgiveness, and with Kevin, who yearns for honesty, does Chiron reveal heartbreaking genuineness. “Moonlight” is, ultimately, a fascinating character study that is sometimes tender, sometimes ferocious, yet always profound.
– Mike Massie