Cast: Mahershala Ali, Alex Hibbert, Ashton Sanders, Trevante Rhodes, Naomie Harris, Andre Holland, Janelle Monae
Director: Barry Jenkins
Running Time: 1 hour 50 minutes
by Jericho Cerrona
The most radical component of writer-director Barry Jenkins' second feature Moonlight, is its focus on a black queer narrative; something rarely, if ever, seen in American cinema. In that sense, it's an unqualified triumph in which a coming-of-age story shows us a larger vision of African American life than we are usually privy to at the movies. It's a film with tremendous performances and a handful of powerful moments, but on the whole, falls just short of greatness due to a simplistic screenplay and some formal choices where one can sense Jenkins' ambitions exceeding his abilities.
Based on the play "In Moonlight Black Boys Look Blue" by Terrel Alvin McCraney, the film takes place in crack-infested Liberty City, Fla during the 1980s and follows young Chiron (played by Alex Hibbert, Ashton Sanders, and Trevante Rhodes during three separate sections) as he navigates what it means to be a black man struggling with his sexual identity. Jenkins chooses a meditative approach to narrative; condensing Chiron's story into a three-act structure which leaves out much of the connective tissue that could have made it a sprawling look at young black male adolescence. Meanwhile, his formal touches are often at odds with the soulful nature of the story he's telling. An opening tracking shot where the camera spins around characters dealing drugs feels like something out of a Michael Bay film, and more than once, he uses stylistic zoom-ins and unnatural camerawork in an attempt at immersing us in this specific milieu. Unfortunately, this often comes across like a case of over-directing.
Still, even if Jenkins at times loses the thread aesthetically, his actors bring moments of warmth, humanity, humor, and searing pain to the proceedings which offset the structural and formal issues the film may have. As a child, Chiron is taunted by kids in the neighborhood, left completely on his own by his crack-addicted mother (Naomie Harris), and taken under the wing of a sensitive drug dealer and possible father figure (Mahershala Ali). The central relationship which forms between Chiron and a man who is essentially enabling his mother's crippling addiction may be simplistic from a writing standpoint, but is imbued with such tenderness and sensitivity by Hibbert and Ali that their scenes together remain some of the most affecting in the entire picture. Meanwhile, Ashton Sanders, who portrays the teenage version of Chiron may be overlooked since his section is the least compelling narratively; (dodging school-yard bullies, enduring his mother's deteriorating physical and mental state, etc), but he arguably gives the film's best performance. Modulating between moments of intense shyness, vulnerability, self-loathing, sexual longing, and brimming rage, Sanders gives us a nuanced portrait of a young man entrenched in an uber-masculine culture who feels trapped by the desires of his own body. In one of the film's best scenes, Chiron and his childhood friend Kevin share a sexual encounter on a beach at night, and if Jenkins elsewhere relies on indulgent flourishes, here he stands back and simply allows his actors to carry the weight of the moment, and what a beautiful, transporting moment it is.
In the final section, we see an adult Chiron navigating the cultural pressures thrust upon him by the society in which he was born by essentially transforming himself from an introverted, lanky kid into a hulking drug-dealing best; complete with grills, gold chains, and souped-up ride. While this depiction of a gay man hiding behind a facade of macho posturing is a bit facile, Trevante Rhodes brings conviction to the part; matching the previous actor's internalized stillness and subtle facial expressions as well as bringing an unexpected gravitas to moments that may have played trite in a lesser actor's hands. Chiron's reunion with Kevin (Andre Holland), whom he hasn't seen in nearly a decade, forms the basis for a final act which is achingly powerful in it's hushed silence. Meeting at a diner while sharing a meal, Rhodes and Holland's chemistry is palpable, as is the heartbreaking sense of yearning between two people who once shared something incredibly intimate and have since drifted apart. Here, as in that aforementioned beach sequence, Jenkins wisely keeps a detached distance from the material, allowing his actors the freedom to unconditionally inhabit these characters and they reward him.
Moonlight is an important film, and it's underlining themes are a powerful reminder of how being black and gay in America is still something people don't want to address. Had the film taken a more all-encompassing view of it's central character (this is one of those rare occasions where a coming-of-age story could have been much longer), and had Jenkins pushed back on some of his more grandstanding filmic techniques, it may have been an even richer rendering of a complex narrative. As it stands, it's a film with it's heart firmly in the right place; giving us a dreamy, sun-scorched rumination on identity in a world mercilessly pushing against anything challenging the status quo.