“Moonlight” is a film of rare grace — a tender, compassionate, restrained look at a life lived in the shadows.
Adapted from Tarell Alvin McCraney’s play “In the Moonlight Black Boys Look Blue,” writer-director Barry Jenkins’ tale of identity and sexuality is one of the year’s finest films and one of the decade’s most important works.
It gets everything right, from its somber mood to its simmering cinematography to its remarkable soundtrack. And it features across-the-board outstanding performances from its ensemble cast, several members of whom may have Oscar nominations in their future.
“Moonlight” is the story of one Miami boy, Chiron, told during three stages in his life: as a child, a high school student and an adult. Those stories are separated into chapters, each marked by what he’s called during that period in his life: Little, Chiron and 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 looking for his entire life.
Backing up, the film opens with young Chiron (Alex R. Hibbert) being chased through a Liberty City neighborhood by kids taunting him with homosexual slurs. He hides out in a dope house where he’s found by Juan (“Luke Cage’s” Mahershala Ali in a breakout role), a neighborhood drug dealer who takes him home, offers to feed him and becomes somewhat of a mentor to him.
Juan and his girlfriend, Teresa (singer Janelle Monae), become a surrogate family for Chiron, whose mother Paula (Naomi Harris, electrifying) is an abusive drug addict. A scene where Juan takes young Chiron to the ocean and teaches him to float on his back is indicative of the raw beauty of Jenkins’ film, brought to life by James Laxton’s intimate cinematography.
“At some point you gotta decide for yourself who you gon’ be,” Juan tells Chiron, addressing an issue that eats at Chiron for most of his life.
Flash forward to high school, and Chiron (now played by Ashton Sanders) is a skinny kid still picked on and teased by bullies at school, his timid nature illustrated by his pursed lips and hunched shoulders.
Mom is still a junkie and he’s just as confused by his identity, but a sexual encounter with Kevin, a classmate (Jharrel Jerome), opens him up. Yet his neighborhood, gender politics and everything he’s ever known teach him to suppress and hide his feelings, so he buries them deep within himself.
The final chapter finds a grown-up Chiron (Trevante Rhodes, a revelation) 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 played by Andre Holland, who is startling), who cooks him a meal at the diner where he’s a cook, and the two reconnect over a meal in a scene as elegant as a ballet.
That scene in the diner is “Moonlight”: a delicate dance around the unspoken, a heart-ripping meditation that is all internal. Credit Jenkins, who with his second film establishes himself as a major talent and visionary storyteller.
This is a major story told in minor keys, a quiet film that sticks with you long after the credits roll. See it now, remember it forever. “Moonlight” glows.
Rated R for some sexuality, drug use, brief violence, and language throughout.
Running time: 110 minutes
At Landmark Main Art Theatre
Writer-director Barry Jenkins’ tale of love and identity, told over three chapters of a young man’s life, is a quiet masterpiece. GRADE: A