Reviewed by: Harvey Karten, Shockya
Director: Barry Jenkins
Written by: Barry Jenkins, story by Tarell Alvin McCraney
Cast: Naomie Harris, André Holland, Mahershala Ali, Janelle Monáe, Trevante Rhodes, Alex R. Hibbert, Jaden Piner
Screened at: Dolby88, NYC, 9/21/16
Opens: October 21, 2016
Consider this in the top tier of films about the African-American experience, ranking along with “A Raisin in the Sun,” “Nothing But a Man” and “Killer of Sheep.” “Moonlight” does not concern itself with integration controversies but sports a 100% African-American cast. This entry comes with the reliable direction of Barry Jenkins, whose 2008 film “Medicine for Melancholy” deals with twenty-four hours in the lives of two residents of San Francisco while gentrification makes headway.
The story is told in three chapters: “Little,” “Chiron,” and “Black,” perhaps aiming for universality in that it deals with the question, “Who am I?” The principal character is played by three actors; the nine-year-old Chiron (Alex Hibbert) who is known as “Little,” the high-school student known by some as “Black,” (Ashton Sanders), and the mature adult, Chiron (Trevante Rhodes). Jenkins hones in on the transformation of the kid, a scrawny, mostly silent child who is picked on by others of his age, through the teen years where he is the victim of a severe beating by his best friend, and his morphing into a muscular, though equally quiet adult. Although the nine-year-olds taunts Little as a “faggot”—the kids do not even know what that means– “Moonlight” does not dwell on a gay theme, showing only a single, discreet episode between the teen and his friend Kevin.
As a young boy with a drug-addicted mother, Paula (Naomie Harris), he takes refuge in a crack house presided over in Miami by the Cuban-born Juan (Mahershala Ali), who despite his profession is a man so full of compassion that he and his pretty girlfriend Teresa (Janelle Monáe) informally adopt him, taking him for lunch and trying to get him to speak. It’s there that he finds out that he is “not a faggot but maybe gay.”
In high school Chiron is bullied more seriously than before, suffering beating from Kevin (Jharrel Jerome) who punches Chiron three times to “fit in” with the class thug. It is in those years that he has the one sexual experience—on the beach with his friend. He also takes revenge against the clown who put Kevin up to the job.
Ultimately, having gone to a juvenile home for smashing the bully with a chair, he builds up his body through weights and exercises and decides whether to get together after a decade with Kevin (André Holland), who has learned to cook in prison and works in a coffee shop.
The picture is anchored by powerful performances all around, especially by Alex Hibbert in his first movie role—and it is a stunner. With a mother who loves him but whose drug makes her neglectful, Chiron will emerge into maturity thanks to the compassion and attention given him by Juan, who even teaches him to swim and especially to float where he considers himself on top of the world. In the final scenes, you may wonder whether Mahershala Ali is playing a second role: that’s how much the mature Chirion has taken on his identity: do-rag, diamond earring, and gold grillz on upper and lower (which he removes before digging in to the food presented by Kevin).
James Laxton as cinematographer often shoots characters in bold close-up against empty backgrounds while the music is highlighted by the gorgeous voice of Barbara Lewis’s poignant “Hello Stranger.”
The film played at festivals in New York, Toronto and Telluride.
Unrated. 110 minutes. © Harvey Karten, Member, New York Film Critics Online
Story – B+
Acting – A-
Technical – B+
Overall – B+