MOVIE REVIEW: Moonlight
52nd Chicago International Film Festival Special Presentation, Black Perspectives entry, and Audience Award winner
“MOONLIGHT”-- 5 STARS
Two years after Richard Linklater’s masterpiece “Boyhood” composed a unique passage of time portraying realistic preciousness of the human condition found on the journey to manhood, director Barry Jenkins’s new film “Moonlight” evolves the coming-of-age instrument further from Linklater. Diving into the harsher conditions of treacherous Miami streets, “Moonlight” shatters the dated template of masculinity with a concussive and potent story of closeted homosexuality among black males. The film uncannily rises above the wrongful stereotypes associated with sexual orientation and urban settings to assuage its dangers with an uncommon and persistent pulse towards messages of acceptance, healing, and heart.
Set in the predominantly African-American Liberty City neighborhood of Miami, “Moonlight” unfolds in structure as a perilous triptych of key turning points in the life of a boy named Chiron. Meek in personality and small in stature, the rudderless nine-year-old Chiron (Alex Hibbert) we meet is ostracized and physically bullied frequently by his classmates. Only one friend named Kevin (Jaden Piner) extends some form of companionship to the boy his peers dub “Little.”
One day while hiding from his bullies in a boarded-up house, Chiron is discovered by Juan, a benevolent local drug dealer, played by the stoic Mahershala Ali. Juan and his girlfriend Teresa (recording artist Janelle Monae) take Chiron in and cares for him overnight before returning him to his menacing, crack-addicted mother Paula (Naomie Harris). Chiron gravitates, day after day, to Juan and Teresa in an effort to escape his troubles. Fulfilling a missing father-figure source of guidance and example, Juan instills values in Chiron to forge his own path in life amid the boy’s burgeoning confusion of self-identity.
After setting its stage with that hard-but-hopeful opening chapter, “Moonlight” advances years to a 16-year-old teenage Chiron (Ashton Sanders) navigating high school. The hostile hazing and Paula’s domineering have only gotten worse. A shared deeper connection to Kevin (Jharrel Jerome) for Chiron is threatened by the pressured demands of maintaining an image of male dominance. When the stresses and abuse take their toll, a snap occurs within him which fast-forwards the film to an adult Chiron (Trevante Rhodes), now approaching 30, who has changed his mentality and look to emulate the image of Juan, working the streets as a bulked-up drug dealer going by the name of “Black” in Atlanta, Georgia.
The final chapter of “Moonlight” crescendos in a demonstrative emotional fashion as an adult Kevin (Andre Holland of “42” and “Selma”), a father working as a diner cook back home in Miami, reaches out to reconnect to Chiron. Matured from their teen years, their dinner encounter of catching up brings forth reflective conversation, unburied hatchets, softened layers of armor, and the possibility of rekindled kinship.
All three Chiron performers, Rhodes and Sanders in particular, are highly impressive virtual unknowns. Their combined raw performances garner your undivided empathy and attention. In opposing positions of supporting influences, recent Bond franchise member Naomie Harris and the versatile character actor Mahershala Ali have never been better on screen as actors. Jumping out of Jenkin’s screenplay from a story by Tarell Alvin McCraney, the two encapsulated the highs and lows of Juan’s compassion and Paula’s fractured parenting with competing grace and ferociousness. Championed by Brad Pitt’s Plan B production shingle, I can think of no better opportunity to blast back against the #OscarsSoWhite stigma than to honor a film such as “Moonlight” in multiple areas.
Emerging talent can be found behind the camera as well. The three chapters of “Moonlight” set a course of a young man learning his battle, finding his limits, and evolving the male presumption of toughness. In just his second feature and first in eight years, Barry Jenkins becomes an immediate new name to watch. His strength is merging the difficult with the delicate in expressively perceptive and sensitive fashion.
A spinning sense of perspective from cinematographer James Laxton and a light touch of music from composer Nicholas Britell skim right on the edges of personal spaces and individual boundaries to create an undeviating sense of intimacy for Jenkins. Similar to Jeff Nichols’s new release “Loving” and its quieter place in historical drama, this film is terrifically free of overinflated theatrics and manufactured drama found in other “urban” films. You can pack away the inappropriate “thug” and “gangbanger” insinuations immediately. Better yet, stop using them entirely.
Quite often along its journey, and definitively by its conclusion, “Moonlight” resonates with a haunting strength that will linger with you long after you leave the cinema. You’ll never listen to a certain Barbara Lewis song again without a longing shiver. I dare you to look into the painful eyes of the three ages of Chiron and their matching performers and not have your soul triple in weight. The arc from the innocence of the little boy to the uncomfortable vulnerability hiding underneath the muscles and gold fronts of the hardened resulting adult is arduously moving on multiple levels. Observing his difficulties forces you to absorb the conflict and inescapable trepidation that surrounds the shared character. Pressing his heart to your own makes for one of the most moving and rewarding film experiences this year.
LESSON #1: WITNESSING THE EVOLUTION OF UNRESOLVED ISSUES THAT CREATE ADULTS-- Through the trajectory of the three chapters of “Moonlight,” we observe how Chiron’s upbringing, or lack thereof, transform him in negative ways that outnumber any positives. The effects of bullying and peer pressure clearly created permanent physical and mental scars. His progression begs the question of when is it too late in life for healing and acceptance? I want that think that it is never too late.
LESSON #2: CHILDREN AND TEENAGERS NEED AN ACTIVE LISTENER IN THEIR LIVES-- If you want a direct, actionable change to take away from “Moonlight” the second you walk out the door, it’s to engage conversations and relationships with the kids your life. Be a father figure, mentor presence, or the actual responsible parent. Someone needs to talk to the reserved, confused, and quiet Chirons of the world that do not share their feelings or have their questions answered. Children endure and digest more than we given them credit for, yet still comprehend less than we fully realize, especially when they mask their pain. They need a sounding board and confidant to break stigmas and define truths.
LESSON #3: MASCULINITY IS NOT EXCLUSIVELY A HETEROSEXUAL TRAIT-- The central figure carries the unspoken burden of traversing an environment that will not accept his unspoken sexual orientation, particularly as a black male. Like many teen boys, Chiron is expected to “be a man.” Masculinity, even in its cinematic forms of ideals and virtues, skews nearly entirely to combatively superior and impossibly tough heterosexual alpha males. In too many definitions, men are not supposed to carry fears, sensitivity, or vulnerability. “Moonlight” joins many emerging sources and counterexamples brave enough to show flawed, sensitive, and vulnerable men, a homosexual one at that, who remain completely real and masculine.