Film Review: Moonlight

Floridly shot, richly humanistic drama about a young man coming of age in a rough Miami slum tangles with love, violence, identity, addiction and sexuality while somehow never overheating.
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It’s safe to say that after his last feature, 2008’s romantic talkfest Medicine for Melancholy, few people would have expected Barry Jenkins to be starting off his newest film with a do-rag-wearing drug dealer rolling through a rough-and-tumble Miami. The characters of the more extravagantly emotional and romantic (in all sense of the word) triptych Moonlight are on the surface light years removed from the urbane hipsters of that earlier film. But really, they’re still dealing with the same issues: namely, identity, their place and purpose in the world, and the search for love.

For the film’s first section, that drug dealer, Juan (Mahershala Ali), isn’t there to deliver a bullet or a threat, but rather salvation. After checking on one of his corner boys, Juan sees a pack of school kids running past. A few minutes later, he pries the boards off the window of an abandoned apartment to find the object of their chase. Chiron, aka “Little” (Alex Hibbert), is a watchful young boy whose quiet yet alert demeanor resonates as a wounded muteness. It also signals to the other kids that he’s vulnerable, which means to them potentially gay and thusly a weakling to be stomped.

In a development that initially stretches credulity but is given realism and weight by the dedication of its performers, Juan takes Little under his wing. First bringing Little home for a meal and kindly talk from his girlfriend Teresa (R&B singer Janelle Monáe in a superbly assured debut), Juan develops into a surrogate father figure to Juan—a role that intensifies the further Little’s single mother Paula (Naomie Harris) slides into addiction. The tragedy of Juan being the one selling the drugs that are keeping Paula strung out isn’t lost on anyone; the shame of both adults’ circumstances reads brightly on their faces when they confront the near-silent Little.

These scenes between Juan and Little are some of the film’s most powerful. This is due primarily to Ali’s authoritative decency, which stands out like a flare even in this uncommonly strong cast. Watch how in the melodramatically photographed scene where Juan teaches Little how to swim—a true ghetto kid, Little doesn’t even seem to have ever seen the ocean that appears to be just blocks from his home—Ali still invests this potentially ludicrous ersatz baptism with a spare paternal dignity that keeps all four of the film’s wheels on the road.

Jenkins’ three-part script, based on a short play by Tarell McCraney, is loose and sketchy, leaving room for each of his performers, not just Ali, to etch their own characters against the old heartachey R&B soundtrack and James Laxton’s lavishly sun-splashed cinematography. The visual brightness of Little’s surroundings, as well as the cautious friendship of Juan, Teresa and his buddy Kevin (Jaden Piner), are all harshly contrasted with the frightening realities of his hunted existence.

That same aching romanticism pulsates through the film’s next two-thirds, albeit with at times slightly less return on the investment, without Ali or as much of Monáe. The second phase tracks Little as a 16-year-old. As played by the lanky and haunted-eyed Ashton Sanders, Little reveals even more how much the years of chaos at home and playground harassment have crushed his spirit. The tenor of the harassment grows almost in tandem with Little’s panicked realization about his own sexuality. This is manifested primarily in his more fraught friendship with Kevin (now Jharrel Jerome), which plays out against a backdrop of progressively violent bullying.

After an explosive climax to the second act, the third is more dramatically quiet but emotionally rawer. The adult Little is played by Trevante Rhodes with a layered, defensive stoicism that purposefully hearkens back to Juan. Fortunately, the other side of the dramatic equation is more than balanced out by the spot-on André Holland (one of the brighter stars on “The Knick”) as the grown-up Kevin.

A tragic romance of identity embedded in a voluptuous atmosphere, Moonlight flirts with visual and thematic excess. But the emotional integrity of its characters, seamlessly maintained from one set of actors to the next, who so desperately want to love, pulls it back from the brink.

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