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By , 2016-11-03

Moonlight is a bittersweet story of one boy, Chiron, told during stages in his life. The first panel of the three 40-minute chapters is set in Miami and follows a fatherless 10-year-old named Chiron (Alex Hibbert), derisively nicknamed “Little.” He is next a high school student now called Chiron and lastly an adult known as “Black.” One central question, posed late in the film, sums up Moonlight’s theme and intent. “Who is you, Chiron?” he is asked. It’s an answer he’s been seeking for his entire life.

The film opens in the 1980s with young Chiron being chased through the Liberty City housing project by kids taunting him with homosexual slurs. He hides out in a dope house where he’s found by Juan (a masterful Mahershala Ali), a neighborhood drug dealer who takes him home, offers to feed him and becomes somewhat of a mentor. Juan and his girlfriend, Teresa (a superb Janelle Monae in her debut), become a surrogate family for Chiron, whose mother Paula (an electrifying Naomi Harris) is a crack addict. The bitterness in that scenario is self-evident. The one person who can provide a kind and caring father-figure for the bullied young Chiron is the neighborhood drug lord. This irony is not lost on the young Chiron. “My mama does drugs?” he asked Juan at the dinner table. “And you sell drugs?” Watching him complete the syllogism in his head, and watching Juan’s reaction, is heartbreaking. The sweetness lies in the relationship between the charismatic and knowing man and the silent and puzzled child, epitomized by a scene where Juan takes young Chiron to the ocean and teaches him to float on his back. These scenes are indicative of the raw beauty of Jenkins’ film, brought to life by James Laxton’s intimate cinematography.

Flash forward to high school, and Chiron (now played by Ashton Sanders) is a skinny kid still harassed and teased by bullies at school, his timid nature illustrated by his pursed lips and hunched shoulders. Mom is still a junkie and he is still confused by his identity. Another bittersweet irony of Moonlight is that this is a coming-out story that can never say the word gay. The machismo of the black culture and neighborhood gender politics that surrounds Chiron is so dominant, the boy seems to have no context to understand his own feelings. And that culminates in another finely wrought scene where the teenage Chiron makes a fleeting sexual connection with his one friend, the ever-smiling Kevin (wonderful portrayal by Jharrel Jerome).

The final chapter finds a grown-up Chiron, now called “Black,” played with superb nuance by ex-athlete Trevante Rhodes in a performance that successfully captures a split personality of sensitivity and swagger. Black is returning to Miami after relocating to Atlanta. He’s now buff, tough and wears a set of gold grills in his mouth, but on the inside is the same scared, confused boy searching for himself. He gets a call from Kevin (now excellently portrayed by Andre Holland) who prepares him a meal at Jimmy’s Eastside Diner where he’s a cook, and the two reconnect over a meal in a perfectly-crafted scene as elegant as a ballet. There’s a thrilling, heart-pumping chemistry in these final moments as we see Chiron’s surface toughness fade in the face of a love he’s so sorely needed throughout his tortured life. It’s beautifully choreographed and easily the most believably intimate gay pairing since the 2005 Brokeback Mountain.

The script was loosely extrapolated by writer-director Barry Jenkins from an autobiographical play titled “In the Moonlight Black Boys Look Blue,” by Tarell McCraney. Jenkins, who was born and raised in Miami, shows a deep understanding of the story. Mention must be made of Laxton’s jagged and swirling camera work which enhances the story with an expressionistic wobble that could be pretentious but feels most natural.

Moonlight is a powerful but personal tale of lost youth and presents that tale along lines that are touching and disturbing, avoiding clichés and shattering stereotypes. Despite the difficult subject matter Jenkins avoids drowning us in despair and Moonlight succeeds on every level. This film is Oscar worthy in many categories and inarguably one of the best movies of the past few years. Highly recommended.


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