Drama Resides Between The Lines In Laudable "Moonlight"

Growing up is hard to do. It’s even harder to get right on film. There’s prosthetics, digital trickery, creative casting, or just plain waiting it out (as in Richard Linklater’s phenomenal “Boyhood”), but it’s a task at odds with the very nature of the medium. The African-American experience has proven similarly complicated for filmmakers, with many resorting to stereotypes for shorthand. Ditto for the gay experience. Some of the best LGBT films have leaned all too heavily on histrionics, forgoing authenticity for more easily digestible melodrama.

It’s with great tenacity then that writer-director Barry Jenkins takes on all of the above in his Miami-set “Moonlight.” He uses three different actors to portray his lead Chiron through a rocky journey from wayward youngster to gay teen to hardened drug dealer, ripping apart stereotypes all the while. The visuals are lush, the performances are lived-in, and the story is lyrical, if painstakingly subdued. Audiences open to following a mostly passive lead character into the trenches of social marginalization will find a very rewarding picture, if not quite the stone-cold masterpiece alluded to in early reviews.

Alex Hibbert plays the young Chiron, known to most as Little. One sunny afternoon Little finds himself bullied by some schoolmates. He ends up hiding out in a dope hole, only to be rescued by a kindly drug dealer named Juan (Mahershala Ali) who immediately takes to him. Try as he might, the do-ragged pusher can’t get the kid to talk, ultimately leaving it to his girlfriend, Teresa (R&B singer Janelle Monáe). Over food, the young one begins to open up about his troubled mother Paula (Naomie Harris). Juan returns Little home, but not before the two form a connection that will shape Chiron into the man he’ll become.

Act two sees a 16-year-old Chiron (Ashton Sanders) dealing with his burgeoning sexuality and an increasingly strung out mother. She’s a wide-eyed mess, shaking her son down for cash without a moment’s hesitation. It’s arguably the film’s most delicate scene, carried with grace by Sanders and Harris, the latter doing some of her best work to date. After a seaside sexual encounter with an acquaintance named Kevin (Jharrel Jermone), an already quiet Chiron both comes out of his shell and retreats inward, finally coming to terms with who he is and rejecting it wholeheartedly.

Our lead’s inner turmoil comes full circle in act three, where he’s graduated to hardened drug dealer. Now known as Black, grown up Chiron (Trevante Rhodes) is the spitting image of his one-time mentor Juan, do-rag and all, having run from Miami to Atlanta, from the life he could no longer make sense of. This is where the film most obviously embraces its Linklater-isms, becoming a talky hybrid of the “Before Sunrise” series and “Boyhood” as Chiron reconnects with Kevin (André Holland), now a father and chef. Their connection still sizzles, but differently than before, each man regretful over things left unsaid – past and present.

The three-act structure is beautiful and symmetrical, but it robs Jenkins’ story of any real surprise. Expectations are defied, yes, but the inevitability in each part of Chiron’s life – purposeful, to be sure – is taken overboard by Jenkins’ delineation between them. With a smash to black and a colorful flicker of light we’re on to the next thing, as if the previous thing were a mere stepping stone. The gaps make thematic sense, making each act more urgent, more immediate than the last, but the segmented story steals away the surprise of a more traditional, seamless three-act narrative.

Although Naomie Harris is terrific as Chiron’s mother, it’s Mahershala Ali who lends the film its flagship performance. The “House Of Cards” actor imbues Juan with all the conflict of the world around him, so often expressing his inner war with nothing more than a glance. He is missed greatly in acts two and three, even though his spirit so clearly lives on in Chiron.

“Moonlight” might not be the near-masterwork that “Boyhood” was – it’s too meditative to ever really soar – but it is a unique, accomplished piece that lovingly and confidently serves several underserved audiences. Worth seeing for its performances alone, its poetic visuals are a ruby red cherry on top. Audiences should eagerly await what its creator does next.

-J. Olson

Rating: ★★★ 1/2 out of ★★★★★ (Good)

Release Date: October 21, 2016 (Limited)
Studio: A24
Director: Barry Jenkins
Screenwriter: Barry Jenkins
Starring: Naomie Harris, Andre Holland, Mahershala Ali, Janelle Monáe, Alex R. Hibbert, Jaden Piner, Ashton Sanders, Trevante Rhodes, Jharrel Jerome
MPAA Rating: R (for some sexuality, drug use, brief violence, and language throughout)