Director: Barry Jenkins
Cast: Alex Hibbert, Ashton Sanders, Trevante Rhodes, Naomie Harris, Mahershala Ali, Janelle Monáe, Jharrel Jerome, André Holland, Patrick Decile
MPAA Rating: (for some sexuality, drug use, brief violence, and language throughout)
Running Time: 1:50
Release Date: 10/21/16 (limited); 10/28/16 (wider); 11/4/16 (wide)
Review by Mark Dujsik | October 27, 2016
At any point in our lives, each of us is but an amalgamation of experiences—influenced by where we have been or want to be, the people we have met and the lessons they taught us, the things we have seen and what we witness so often that they become a concept of what is "normal." Moonlight is a coming-of-age story about one person within the context of three, specific stages of his life: as a boy, a teenager, and a man. It's a film that is uncommonly attuned to the way that experiences shape everything about a person, from the external showings of what a person is—or how that person wants to be seen—to the very fabric of an individual's personality.
Through three tremendous performances—one for each of the stages of the man's life—that somehow coalesce into a singular whole, we can spot the obvious differences and the subtle similarities in this individual as his life progresses. Each chapter of the film is announced with a title that corresponds to the name this person uses for himself. The boy, living in Miami, calls himself Little (Alex Hibbert), because that is what others have labeled him. The teenager calls himself Chiron (Ashton Sanders), because that is the name his parents gave him.
The man, now in Atlanta, goes by Black (Trevante Rhodes). It's another nickname that was given to him without his say-so. After rejecting it as a teenager, considering it an insult in regards to the hue of his skin, he has embraced the moniker as a man. It is not an exaggeration to say that the appearance of the title "Black" at the start of the third chapter is one of the more affecting moments of the film. By then, we know what the titles mean, and we also know the extent of pain and regret and longing that come with the character's embrace of that particular nickname, which was given to him by someone who, from all available evidence at the time, does not deserve that particular honor.
Such is the cumulative power of writer/director Barry Jenkins' film. It's a story (based on an unproduced play by Tarell Alvin McCraney) of definitive moments that only become so in retrospect.
The boy, for example, finds himself learning to swim under the guidance of Juan (Mahershala Ali), a drug dealer who takes the scared, confused little boy under his wing for guidance and protection. Little's mother Paula (Naomie Harris, wisely focusing on the character's desperation for immediate gratification and, later, atonement), who is raising the boy on her own, is one of Juan's buyers. She is present in the boy's life, albeit only as present as a drug addict can be.
With some help from his girlfriend Teresa (Janelle Monáe), Juan learns how to act as a father to the boy, while the boy learns what it's like to be able to ask for advice. He especially wonders why the other kids mock him with a homophobic word and what it would mean if there's some truth behind the insults. Juan teaches the boy how to stand up for himself, while recognizing that he might not be the right man to be a role model. After the father figure confesses his transgressions to Little, Jenkins' camera stays on Juan's face for the weight of his hypocrisy and guilt to sink in. Jenkins treats all of these characters, as flawed in their own ways as they may be, with an abundance of compassion and empathy.
We learn in the second chapter that Juan has gone far too soon from Chiron's life (Ali's performance makes such an impact that the character's presence remains even after he is absent from the story). Chiron spends the rest of his life drawn to the beach for reasons that he knows, as if they were a part of the very core of his being, but does not put into words. Even if he wanted to, how could he?
As a teenager, the beach becomes the site of another milestone for Chiron. He is a loner still and still tormented by bullies. One boy, named Kevin (Jharrel Jerome), doesn't join the others in the taunting and intimidation. The two teens have much more in common than Chiron knows, which leads to the milestone. That event, which gives the beach a new layer of joy and freedom, leads to yet another, which imbues the place with an additional layer of loss.
As a man, Black has adopted a look and a lifestyle that mirrors the only man he might have called a father—dressing the same way, driving a similar car, engaged in the same business. Things have changed considerably for Black and the people he knows. The central question of this section is how much has stayed the same for a man (André Holland) whom Black knew in what seems like another life.
In this section, the central character finds himself back near the same beach. It seems coincidental at first, until we realize it is not.
Neither Black nor the other man needs to say it, and Jenkins needs only to show us the place from a new angle, letting us know that Black is seeing this familiar place from someone else's perspective for the first time (James Laxton's cinematography possesses a rare quality of presenting the world as both naturalistic and dreamlike, especially during scenes at night when the glow of the moon, streetlamps, and florescent lights feels almost ethereal). The unmistakable and calming sounds of the waves rolling on shore serve as a reminder of what this place meant to this man when he was called Little or took back the name Chiron.
It means those things to Black, too, and now, it means something else—something new and frightening and exciting and unknown. He doesn't say it aloud, because Black is still Little, who didn't know who he was because of his youthful ignorance, just as he is still Chiron, who refused to say who he was out of fear. In this one face, we see the boy, the teenager, and the man all at once.
That connection is not simply the result of the trio of actors' performances, which are almost eerily in sync with each other in terms of attitude and physicality. It also comes from Jenkins' command of communicating this character's inner life without a word being spoken. The director finds the connective tissue between the stages of Chiron's life—through clothing, looks on his face, the way he holds himself, the subjects that keep him silent, and the ones that encourage him to speak.
Moonlight is a film filled with a sense of constant discovery—of the character learning about himself and the world, of us witnessing that character's evolution in unexpected and delicate ways, of seeing the emergence of Jenkins' uniquely bold and boldly confident voice as a filmmaker. This is a wholly special and candidly heartfelt film.
Copyright © 2016 by Mark Dujsik. All rights reserved.
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