Starring: Trevante Rhodes, André Holland, Janelle Monáe, Alex Hibbert, Ashton Sanders, Jharrel Jerome, Naomie Harris, Mahershala Ali, Jaden Piner
Running Time: 111 min.
★★★ ½ (out of ★★★★)
He never stood a chance. This was the first thought that raced through my mind at the end of Moonlight, which chronicles the life of a young black man from the rough streets of Miami as he passes from childhood to teenager through young adulthood. Well that, and the fact that what happens to this boy is probably something that's fairly realistic and could easily be going on every day. In fact, it's fair to say someone's living out a life nearly identical to this shy, withdrawn, emotionally damaged protagonist right now. This, of course, is just speculation since the hardest thing to do when watching a film is to fully immerse yourself in a world with which you have zero familiarity. By its conclusion, that changed.
Based upon Tarell Alvin McRaney's unproduced 2003 play, In Moonlight Black Boys Look Blue and divvied up into an orderly and effective three-part structure by writer/director Barry Jenkins, it's one of the easiest hard movies to watch, if that makes any sense at all. Much of that is due to the quality of filmmaking and the performances, a couple in particular. Some may quibble about the third section and where it all eventually ends up compared to how it began, but it feels logical and true. And that's more than enough.
Chiron (Alex Hibbert) is nicknamed "Little" for both his size and meek personality. Looking to escape bullying at school and the emotional abuse of his crack-addicted mother Paula (Naomie Harris), the frequently silent Chiron finds himself taken in by Juan (Mahershala Ali), a local Miami drug dealer living with his girlfriend, Teresa (Janelle Monáe). Becoming a father figure of sorts to the boy, he teaches him how to swim while dispensing valuable life advice he'll never receive at home. He also finds a friend at school in Kevin (Jaden Piner), who nicknames him, "Black" and talks to him when seemingly no other kids will.
In his teen years, Juan is now gone, but Chiron (now Ashton Sanders) somehow soldiers on, unsuccessfully, with Kevin (now Jharrel Jerome) still in the picture. The bullying and his mother's addiction gets worse and an incident occurs that changes the course of his life, leading into the third section, where an adult, physically transformed Chiron (now Trevante Rhodes) is a drug dealer on the streets of Atlanta when he gets an opportunity to reconnect with Kevin (now André Holland), a diner cook still residing in Miami. Very clearly traumatized by his hellish childhood and adolescence, Chiron contemplates the opportunity to reach out to the one person left who truly understands him, with a secret they share both simultaneously standing in the way and bringing them closer.
Segmented into three chapters, it's almost inevitable that strong opinions exist as to which is best. But it's a credit to Barry Jenkins that it never feels like a contest, as each seems like a large, important piece of the puzzle in terms of constructing this person's life. But what everyone can unanimously agree on is that while the character of Juan is only in the first section, the presence of Mahershala Ali never fades even long after he's left the screen, informing every event that follows and never quite disappearing from memory. This might be the very definition of a great performance. When someone isn't in a film long or even heavily featured through much of it, and they leave such an indelible mark that it's like they've never left. I'm not even sure it hits us all at once since his actual exit occurs off screen, but it noticeably affects the teen Chiron and carries over into the adult section, which couldn't exist without Ali's performance. It really isn't until later that we start feeling the magnitude of his absence.
Juan's essentially the first person we meet when the film begins and it's obvious from the get-go that he's a force. As kind, charismatic and benevolent he is on the surface, and as much as he cares for this child, we must reconcile the fact he's also his mom's drug dealer, and perhaps indirectly responsible for their traumatic home life. One of the film's most devastating scenes is when young Chiron himself innocently comes to that realization and this mixture of shame and guilt comes across Juan's face, reducing this previously strong man to the point where he just wants to crawl into a hole and hide.
Despite fairly minimal screen time, Ali (known to most for playing lobbyist Remy Danton on House of Cards) leaves an imprint of humanity on the story that carries over, allowing audiences to accept what eventually becomes of Chiron, taking the most flawed of his childhood hero's qualities as his own. Without this, seeing him as a jacked up drug dealer resembling rapper 50 Cent would be a bridge too far for audiences to cross. It's mostly because of Ali that we're not only able to cross it, but completely believe. But before even getting there, it's the emotional turmoil of the second section, and quiet desperation of Ashton Sanders as the teen Chiron, that provide the film's most uncomfortable, tension-filled moments, as he's viciously bullied by both his own drug addicted mother and kids at school. "Bullied" may actually be too light a word.
Naomie Harris is so brutally committed in the role it's almost difficult to watch, recalling the worst/best of Monique's Oscar-winning performance in Precious. This whole section's hard to watch, yet impossible to take your eyes off of, wondering if the shy Chiron will eventually stand up for himself. What happens when he does has far-reaching consequences, in many ways creating a monster. And the worst part of it is that an argument can easily be made that this was a necessary reaction, inevitable and inescapable.
The only constant source of hope is his relationship with Kevin, to some some degree ironing out the sexual confusion he's had since he was a child, if not necessarily the repression. Tough enough as it must have been growing up with those circumstances in that neighborhood, the compounded pressure of knowing he's gay, or really different at all, couldn't have helped. But Jenkins' story isn't about so much about that as it is people being forced, through circumstances beyond their control, to become someone they're not, but were invariably meant to be. That's why the third section of the film is so powerful, with Chiron reuniting with Kevin twenty years later and at very different places in life. Though, not really.
When diner cook Kevin, subtly and outstandingly played by Holland, remarks to Chiron that "This isn't you" he's somehow both right and wrong. Now going by "Black," his physical appearance is jarring and his drug dealing profession seems at odds with the quiet boy we met at the beginning of the picture, but all this pain had to eventually manifest itself in some way. What's both sad and strangely reassuring is how you still sense that the scared little kid Juan taught to swim is very much present, perhaps even more so, as an adult. He's just found a method for not dealing with it.
There's no sense sugar-coating the fact that this film, exceptionally made as it is, is a tough sell. Of all this year's the Best Picture nominees, Moonlight may have been the one I had the least interest in watching, quickly writing it off from its trailers and commercials as an awards-baiting liberal message movie formulated as a direct response to last year's #OscarsSoWhite controversy and the recent political climate. Boyhood, but with a black, homosexual protagonist. Luckily, most didn't go in nearly as close-minded as I. But if you did, the good news is that Barry Jenkins should no problem winning you over. From the performances, to cinematographer James Laxton's glorious handheld camerawork to Nicholas Britell's delicate musical score, it's a top-to-bottom achievement that's nearly as big a deal as you've heard. The toughest part is getting people see it based on description alone.
The biggest surprise about Moonlight is how universal it feels despite all those external forces that should seem to make it a very specific film capturing a very specific experience. And how all of this socio-political garbage disappears once it begins. It's just about a kid who's completely lost. Simply, powerfully, it's about how certain factors shape you and sometimes there's no escaping the person you'll become because of them. Change seems nearly impossible when the wounds cut this deep. So often at the mercy of where we grow up and how, sometimes the best we can do is survive by making superficial adjustments.