“Moonlight” follows a poor, black, gay Miami boy as he progresses from childhood to manhood and struggles to recognize his sexuality and carve a place for himself in a world where he doesn’t conform to conceptions of masculinity.
Written and directed by Barry Jenkins (“Medicine for Melancholy”), the film is a beautiful, poetic character portrait, American tragedy, and journey of hope.
Directing, screenwriting, acting, cinematography and music combine superbly in the movie, which is based on a play by Tarell Alvin McCraney and has been compared to Richard Linklater’s “Boyhood” and Charles Burnett’s “Killer of Sheep.” It also suggests the atmospheric work of Terrence Malick and the gracefully “unfinished” cinema of Abbas Kiarostami.
Three acts chronicle about 15 years in the life of the protagonist, Chiron, beginning in the 1980s. Three actors play him.
In Act 1, in Miami’s Liberty City area, Chiron (Alex Hibbert), nicknamed Little, is a skinny, near-silent, bullied 9-year-old who lives with his mother, Paula (Naomie Harris), a crack-addicted nurse. Juan (Mahershala Ali), a drug dealer, becomes a caring father figure to Chiron while at the same time selling drugs to Chiron’s mom. We also meet Kevin (Jaden Piner), Chiron’s friend.
Chiron (Ashton Sanders) is taller and the bullies are meaner in Act 2. A teenage kiss with Kevin (Jharrel Jerome) on the beach in the moonlight will become a shining memory for him. But in the harsh, cruelly conformist world of high school, it has devastating consequences.
In the final act, Chiron, now called Black (Trevante Rhodes), is a bulked-up 20-something with a prison record who looks tough but still can’t embrace his desires. Having taken up Juan’s profession, Chiron seems glued to his path.
But an out-of-the-blue phone call from estranged friend Kevin (Andre Holland), now a diner cook, leads to a liberating reunion.
While the film’s linear storytelling is conventional, as are the plot’s themes of friendship, love, betrayal and redemption, it digs deep beneath the surface.
Jenkins fills space between the words (and in the case of the barely verbal Chiron, there’s lots of space) with loads of human texture.
Characters who initially appear as stereotypes contain surprising shades. A scene in which Juan teaches young Chiron to swim is particularly memorable.
The filmmaker’s fondness for withholding details about important events and letting the viewer fill in the blanks proves rewarding.
And he addresses social realities — drugs, school violence, prison — seriously but without preachiness.
Described by Jenkins as “exploring inner-city impoverished black masculinity,” this is the rare film that shows this group of men, and men, period, loving each other tenderly.
Cinematographer James Laxton’s luminous widescreen camerawork, featuring heightened colors, enhances the mood.
The same goes for the music, which includes a mournful score by Nicholas Britell, classical and hip-hop sounds. and wonderfully used romantic pop.
Even though they don’t look alike, the actors playing Chiron capture his essence well and are quite believable.
Rhodes’ Chiron and Holland’s Kevin bring an exciting chemistry to the reunion.
Ali is excellent as Juan, a terrific supporting character, as is Harris, as Paula — although that character and Juan’s girlfriend Teresa (Janelle Monae) could use more development.
Three and a half stars
Starring Trevante Rhodes, Mahershala Ali, Naomie Harris, Andre Holland
Written and directed by Barry Jenkins
Running time 1 hour, 51 minutes
Note: The film screens at the Embarcadero, Sundance Kabuki and Alamo Drafthouse.