Moonlight

Winner of three Academy Awards, including Best Picture!

Moonlight has a lonely, haunting glow befitting of its title. A triptych illustrating the tidal ebb and flow of identity, Jenkins’s film is awash in dreaminess, while still examining the life of one young man with piercing clarity. It’s a major achievement for second-time director Barry Jenkins, and a refreshing, exhilarating portrait of lives that are so rarely depicted on film.

Poster for the drama MoonlightWe meet a boy called Little (heartbreaking Alex Hibbert), living in poor Miami. He’s harassed at school for something his peers see in him that Little doesn’t yet. While at home, he’s increasingly alienated from his mother, Paula (a vivid Naomie Harris), who is succumbing to drug addiction – and indeed, through her haze, she also sees that her boy is different. Little is a boy lost, swallowed up, receding into himself. He only opens up, barely, in the presence of Juan, a kind, sad-eyed, mid-level local drug dealer (the terrific Mahershala Ali), and Juan’s girlfriend Teresa (Janelle Monaë). It’s unclear what their motivations are, but they offer a vital haven for a boy who desperately needs it.

In this first segment of the film, we see the first glimmers of Little’s awareness – of himself, of the world – bloom into being. Jenkins gently, persuasively illustrates these first flashes of dawning realization: the pain and yearning of discovery, the glimpsing of a life’s narrative inexorably folding out before you as you begin stumbling into yourself. Even for those of us who have had far safer and more supportive circumstances than Little’s, these scenes feel startlingly true to the experience of discovering one’s identity – in slow and pained fits, in quick, angry starts.

The second section of the film – the quickest and angriest one – finds teenage Little (the marvelous, wounded Ashton Sanders), now going by his given name, Chiron, more directly grappling with that budding identity. Chiron is gay, or at least not entirely straight, and his classmates torment him. School is a hell, while Paula’s drug use has worsened into a chronic condition. Chiron still has the modest comfort of his semi-adoptive second family, but he’s swelling with the rage and desperation of adolescence, bombarded by the insistent looming of a bleak and seemingly hopeless future.

Here Jenkins strikes his most overtly dramatic chords, falling into a few too-convenient high school narrative clichés, but he still finds moments of dizzying beauty and feeling, particularly in a scene on a nighttime beach, where Chiron and a friendly, loquacious classmate, Kevin (Jharrel Jerome), have a charged, surprising romantic encounter. The scene is shot with a bracing, invigorating intimacy, Jenkins dexterously capturing the tentative trembling, longing, and scary sexiness of first physical contact. (The way he shoots the boys’ hands turns them into vessels of possibility and danger.) It's a commanding, film-defining scene, somehow understated and enormous.

Poster triptych for the three-part life portrayed in MoonlightThis brief moment of connection sets the stage for the film’s third and most stunning chapter, gliding forward in time some ten years to when Chiron, now called Black (the tremendous Trevante Rhodes), has become his own hulking, haunted mid-level drug dealer in Atlanta. An unexpected phone call from the past sends Black back to Florida, to grapple with his mother and to revisit that moment on the beach with a now grown-up Kevin (André Holland, utterly magnetic).

Here, Moonlight takes on the quality of an Ian McEwan story, showing how a single moment of intimacy, however doomed or blissful, can come to shape an entire life. Jenkins deftly, insightfully meditates on the fraught intersection of black masculinity and homosexuality, while also giving his film the quiet murmur of something mythic and elemental. This third segment is among the strongest stretches of film I've seen in quite some time. It’s so carefully written, and prodigiously, fluidly acted by Rhodes and Holland, that it creates an almost unbearable air of presence and immediacy.

Jenkins has made a breathtaking film, one with political urgency and a deep, compassionate humanity. Moonlight is timely and timeless, a study in limits that casts its gaze up toward something transcendent.

– Richard Lawson, Vanity Fair
 

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