Alex Hibbert in Moonlight. (Photo: A24)
***1/2 (out of four)
DIRECTED BY Barry Jenkins
STARS Trevante Rhodes, Mahershala Ali
Black lives matter in the quiet, contemplative Moonlight, but let’s not stop there. Gay lives matter as well, to say nothing of the lives of those seeking identity, companionship and direction. Simply put, all lives matter in this impressive indie effort, though not in the dismissive, divisive manner espoused by hashtag-loving racists, rednecks and Trump supporters.
In bringing Tarell Alvin McCraney’s play In Moonlight Black Boys Look Blue to the screen, writer-director Barry Jenkins has employed a three-act structure that examines three periods in the life of Chiron, a boy coming of age in a rough Miami neighborhood. The first chapter centers on Chiron when he’s particularly young and sporting the nickname “Little” (played at this age by Alex Hibbert). Tormented by both schoolyard bullies and his own drug-addled single mom (an almost unrecognizable Naomie Harris, far removed from her work as Moneypenny in the latest Bonds), Little finds comfort from the soft-spoken drug dealer Juan (Mahershala Ali) and his girlfriend Teresa (music star Janelle Monáe). The second act finds the now teenaged Chiron (Ashton Sanders) coping with his burgeoning homosexuality, still being harassed by bullies, and hanging out with his longtime friend Kevin (Jharrel Jerome), a relationship that unfortunately isn’t above the demands of peer pressure. The final stretch catches up with Chiron (Trevante Rhodes) as a grown man now living in Atlanta, calling himself “Black” and making money as a drug dealer. Restless and dissatisfied, Black finds himself deciding whether to make peace with his once-abusive mother, now parked at a nursing home, and with Kevin (André Holland), still living in Miami and working as a cook.
Although stylistically different than Richard Linklater’s Boyhood, Moonlight is similar in that it also tracks the life of a young male and shows how he’s shaped not only by his environment and the actions of those around him but by his own strengths, his own weaknesses, and his own understanding (or lack thereof) of what makes him tick as a human being. The first two acts are especially strong in conveying this, bolstered by a unique outlook and several formidable performances (especially Ali, who brings unexpected complexity to the role of a sentient, saintly man who, at the end of the day, is still helping to destroy his own community). The first two-thirds are so strong, in fact, that the film noticeably tapers off during its final chapter, which houses a few potent moments but feels far more structurally conventional and dramatically incomplete. Nevertheless, the movie continues to move forward as it should, with cautious steps toward hope and change.