Barry Jenkins’ film “Moonlight” is a touching, sensitive portrait of a young black man reckoning with his masculinity in the face of a rude sexual awakening.
Adapted from Tarell Alvin McCraney’s unproduced play “In Moonlight Black Boys Look Blue,” the film follows a man named Chiron through three distinct phases: Little (boyhood), Chiron (adolescence) and Black (adulthood). Each section is played by a different actor in the role, and all three are marvelous performers, capable of pulling even the slightest bit of feeling from a look or a movement of a hand.
The first section follows Chiron as a young boy (Alex Hibbert) being chased by his peers, perhaps because he seems too feminine, perhaps because he reads too much, perhaps from some sort of thing that the other boys are able to see that just set something off in them. He’s taken in by paternalistic drug dealer Juan (“House of Cards” Mahershala Ali) and his girlfriend Teresa (Janelle Monae) who function as surrogate parents for him.
Monae in particular turns in an unexpectedly stunning performance, full of kindness and understanding without leaning into overacting or the cliches of this genre and coming out as the best among many wonderful performances.
Ali exudes a warm, fatherly masculinity entirely at odds with what a viewer would expect him to be and these sort of subversions happen frequently throughout. Another is his relationship with Teresa: a kind, loving sort rarely seen between people of this status. Ali needs all the help from her he can get, since his mother, Paula, is addicted to drugs and their relationship only gets more strained as he gets older.
Played by Naomi Harris, Paula turns from what could be a one-dimensional tired trope into a character who loves her son but is torn between her addiction and him. A scene later on in which she attempts to mend fences is absolutely heartbreaking.
The film’s core eventually reveals itself in Kevin, also played by three actors. Chiron first meets him as a child (Jaden Piner) and by the time they’re both teenagers, he seems to be the only friend Chiron has.
It’s at this stage that Jenkins digs deepest into his examination of black masculinity as Chiron faces bullying for frankly just not being tough.
How can he be if it’s just not him?
Should he change himself to keep from being beat up, or give into the violence of men?
Andre Holland of the late, lamented Cinemax series “The Knick” plays Kevin as an adult to magnificent effect when he meets up with Chiron years later after an incident from high school. The looks they give each other and the way they talk gives you everything you need to know about their feelings and it’s by no small miracle that it feels as emotional as it does.
This is only Jenkins’ second feature, but he’s practiced through numerous short films, and it shows all over the careful camera control throughout the film. He and cinematographer James Laxton capture absolutely beautiful images of nightlife and the ocean that Chiron often escapes to, including transition scenes that use a blinking light to signal a time jump. Along with a memorable but spare score by Nicholas Britell, “Moonlight” is an unmissable experience and one of the best films of the year.