One can only hope the avalanche of rave reviews, critics’ awards — a “best picture” by the L.A. Film Critics Association no less — and bevy of Golden Globe nominations hasn’t scared you away from “Moonlight.”
As the late film critic Roger Ebert once marveled in an interview, when he told a woman calling his office that the picture she was thinking about seeing that night was probably the best of the year, she replied that that didn’t sound like anything she would care to see.
And there’s this: in the Year of Trump does anyone want to see a film about black and gay self-realization?
Nevertheless, perhaps you should take a chance.
This tale of a bullied kid growing up in Miami’s poor Liberty City milieu at the height of the 1980s crack epidemic transcends that context and those issues to investigate such universal challenges as self-identity, inner fears, coming-of-age and false images of masculinity.
The film was made by Barry Jenkins, a black Floridian who made a little seen 2008 romantic drama “Medicine for Melancholy,” has expanded on a short play called “In Moonlight Black Boys Look Blue” by Tarell Alvin McCraney for his screenplay.
“Moonlight” is structured into three sections, separating the history of a black gay Florida youth into childhood, adolescence and adulthood. Each phrase is titled by various nicknames —Little, Chiron (his given name), Black — thus enforcing the theme of a youth’s shifting self-image.
“Who is you, man?” asks a friend in the final section when the man who shows up after many years doesn’t fit his expectations of the buddy he once knew.
Earlier, in the first section, a man who acts as Chiron’s mentor and male role model, tells him, “You got to decide for yourself who you gonna be. Can’t let anybody make that decision for you.”
An audience first glimpses the boy (Alex Hibbert) running for his life from a gang of bullies. Hiding out in an abandoned drug den, he is discovered by Juan (Mahershala Ali of “House of Cards” and “The Hunger Games”), a Cuban-born drug dealer, who eventually takes Little under his wing.
Since the boy won’t talk or even tell him his address, Juan takes him home to his girlfriend Teresa (hip-hop singer Janelle Monáe), where each smothers him in acceptance and wisdom. This, the film strongly implies, is the tight-knit family the boy deserves rather than the hellhole where Little lives with his crack-addict mother Paula (Naomie Harris).
But, surprisingly and without commentary, Juan disappears in the next section, allowing Teresa to continue to be his succor as a distressed teen. You are left to conjecture about Juan’s absence but, I think, this gets wrapped up in the film ambivalent attitude towards the drug epidemic in such poor communities.
Drugs are a fact of life here, a given. Such are the intertwined relationships the poor have with drugs that Little’s savior, Juan, is the very dude selling crack to his damaged mom. Indeed both Little and his mother make this point to Juan when he tries to intervene, even slightly, in her relationship with her son — and with drugs.
Drugs will appear in a later scene where Chiron (now Ashton Sanders) has his first homoerotic experience, playing the role of a martini or champagne in a conventional romantic scene. The movie isn’t trying to have it both ways but rather accepting the the scourge of drugs — and crime — that no amount of moralizing is going to remove from poor communities.
This is one example of the nuances and powerful observations Jenkins has deployed in fashioning a highly emotional and highly intimate story.
There is another key figure in the protagonist’s life, one that continues through all three episodes and that is his friend Kevin, although one doesn’t immediately pick up on how substantial a crush young Chiron has on his buddy.
This only comes into focus when the Chiron and Kevin (Jharrel Jerome) share a joint on a moonlit Miami beach. This gets followed by a sequence of catastrophic betrayal and, ultimately, a pivotal moment in the life of the boy known as Chiron.
In the third section, Chiron emerges from prison as the muscular recreation of Juan. He has become Juan, in fact, down to his assumption of his old job as a level-headed leader of a drug-dealing crew.
This turn of events has less to do with predictability than inevitability. You keep throwing taunts and images at a shy, impressionable youth, you get a natural progression to the most positive image he has in his life.
Like Juan, he is no brute but you sense both men wouldn’t hesitate to kill if necessary for survival. And like Juan, he has a soft side, having seen too much of life to ever see violence is that best solution to any situation.
The third section manages to trick of providing closure to the two major plot threats of Chiron’s life yet leaving everything open-ended. A decade or so after the seminal high-school incident and after serving juvenile prison time in Atlanta, Chiron (Trevante Rhodes) visits and makes a kind of peace with his now reformed and sober mother, then hooks up with a changed Kevin (André Holland) in an equally emotional sequence.
The thing with all the episodes of Chiron’s life is how Jenkins guides his acting crew toward honest, deeply honed performances that never feel like performances. There is a natural fluidity to the playing that leads to a startling emotional directness.
And somehow the three actors playing the hero at different ages manage the trick of carrying over the mannerisms, especially the shyness bordering on a closed-off opaqueness, from actor to actor. These are spiritually the same character in this life progression.
James Laxton free-floating camera follows characters in a manner reminiscent of the Dardenne brothers in a film such as “The Kid With a Bike.” The editing by Nat Sanders and Joi McMillon is brief and concentrated to keep the actors within the camera frame, allowing them to create then break all spacial relationships.
Laxton creates sometimes a bleak washed out look for daytime scenes but at night he lets the titular moonlight bathe the characters in a kind of romantic glow.
“Moonlight” certainly signals an important new voice in American cinema in Jenkins and marks yet another strong production for Brad Pitts’ Plan B Entertainment.
Opened: October 21, 2016 (A24) Production companies: Plan B Entertainment, Pastel
Cast: Trevante Rhodes, André Holland, Janelle Monáe, Ashton Sanders, Jharrel Jerome, Naomie Harris, Mahershala Ali, Alex Hibbert, Jaden Piner
Director-screenwriter: Barry Jenkins
Based on a play by: Tarell Alvin McCraney
Producers: Adele Romanski, Dede Gardner, Jeremy Kleiner
Executive producers: Brad Pitt, Sarah Esberg, Tarell Alvin McCraney
Director of photography: James Laxton
Production designer: Hannah Beachler
Music: Nicholas Britell
Costume designer: Caroline Eselin-Schaefer
Editors: Nat Sanders, Joi McMillon
No rating, 111 minutes.