“Moonlight,” having made triumphant bows at the Telluride and Toronto film festivals, as well as commercial theaters in New York and Los Angeles, is the best-reviewed film of the year so far.
Now that it’s arriving in theaters throughout the rest of the country, viewers can finally see what all the fuss is about. And they will see a perfect film, one that exemplifies not only the formal and aesthetic capabilities of a medium at its most visually rich, but a capacity for empathy and compassion that reminds audiences of one of the chief reasons why we go to movies: to be moved, opened up and maybe permanently changed.
Adding to its achievement, “Moonlight” accomplishes all of this without a trace of bombast or showy self-congratulation. Adapting a play by Tarell Alvin McCraney, writer-director Barry Jenkins has crafted a deceptively simple story in which the protagonist, Chiron, comes of age in the Liberty City neighborhood of Miami.
Although Chiron faces the familiar hardships of his environment – poverty, drugs, crime and dispossession – Jenkins often turns those obstacles on their heads, seeing them through a far more complex lens than the usual one of dysfunction and despair. And Chiron emerges as the most touching exemplar of the film’s nuanced perspective, as he grapples with the layers of his own identity as an African-American man who happens to be gay.
“Moonlight” begins when Chiron is a 9-year-old boy and being bullied by neighborhood kids for being “soft.” The film, which is organized in three separate chapters, will catch up with him as a teenager and, finally, a grown man. Played as a child by Alex Hibbert, Chiron is shy and guarded, the son of a loving mother (Naomie Harris) battling an addiction to drugs.
When Chiron comes under the care of the neighborhood dealer Juan (Mahershala Ali), the contradictions that animate “Moonlight” come starkly into play: Chiron receives nurturing and acceptance from Juan and his girlfriend Teresa (singer Janelle Monae). In fact, their home provides a genuinely safe and healthy respite from the danger and uncertainty all around him. What to make of the fact that Juan either directly or indirectly contributes to his young charge’s distress, Jenkins leaves to the viewer.
The contradictions continue in “Moonlight’s” next two chapters, which focus on Chiron’s relationship with his best friend Kevin, and his attempts to come to grips with feelings he can barely articulate, let alone act on. Played by Ashton Sanders as a teenager and Trevante Rhodes as an adult – and with Jaden Piner, Jharrel Jerome and Andre Holland playing Kevin in each chapter – Chiron morphs from reticent and watchful to shut down, his state of suspended animation only interrupted by an unexpected encounter that brims with warmth, redemption and fragile hope.
Directed with superb control and insight by Jenkins, “Moonlight” achieves the near-impossible in film, which is to ground its story and characters in a place and time of granular specificity and simultaneously make them immediately relatable and universal.
The central core of “Moonlight,” of course, is formed by the six actors who play Chiron and Kevin at various stages of their lives. They are the beating heart of a film that, in its knockout of a final sequence, turns out to be all heart, all the time.
Cast: Alex Hibbert, Ashton Sanders, Trevante Rhodes, Mahershala Ali, Janelle Monae, Naomie Harris
Director: Barry Jenkins
Length: 111 minutes
Rating: R (sexuality, drug use, brief violence and obscenity)
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