“Moonlight” is a beautifully acted, hard-to-watch film that is as profound as it is enervating and scattered. We begin with ten-year-olds running helter-shelter through brush and weeds, their backpacks flopping up and down with each leap. We are interested as the small boy nicknamed Little ( Alex Hibbert) hides in an abandoned trailer -like house. We come to understand that he is being chased and bullied. Thrown rocks shatter window panes and loud fists beat on the closed door. The taunters retreat, and we meet a smiling adult who seems to take in what has happened and asks the shy Little to join him for lunch.
Mahershala Ali, who played Remy in “House Of Cards”, is the drug dealer, Juan. We are not certain if Juan is altruistic or plans on using the boy to help his trade. We surmise it may be both. He tells Little that he can’t be running around these dope-holes. Juan learns that Little already lives in one, and that he himself and his cohorts provide Little’s mother,Paula ,with her stash.
This is a coming of age tale where a shy and sullen black boy knows he doesn’t fit in. His mother, a crack-addict, comments on his walk, berates his gay tendencies, and emotionally abuses him with her alternating pushing and pulling. Her mixed messages leave their mark,and trust becomes harder to give. Paula, (Naomi Harris ) is animal-like in her needs, tender in her intent, and abjectly terrifying as a parent. Harris’ accusatory,” You gonna raise my son now? You gonna keep selling me rocks?” is perfectly delivered in anger and hopelessness.
Little’s one friend Kevin ( Jaden Piner) is pixie-like in his emotional intelligence. He accepts Little’s lack of words, and sparks fun where it is hard to come by. I adored this child actor in this “early Kevin ” part. His “Why you let them pick on you? Don’t be so soft.” leads to tender puppy wrestling. We have our love interest set.
In a remarkable scene, Juan teaches Little to swim. The operatic violin score is perfect as Juan turns Little on his back and opens up whole new horizons. Juan instructs him that he has to decide who is is going to be. As fatherly a role as I have seen, Ali ‘s performance is arresting. It is here that we hear an allusion to the play written by Tarell Alvin McCraney, “In Moonlight Black Boys Look Blue” on which the semi-autobiographical script is based.
Barry Jenkins wrote and directed “Moonlight”, and his script has Juan answering Little/Chiron’s question:”What is a faggot?” Juan’s definition is sensitive and tender: ” It is a word used to make gay people feel bad.” It is Juan who hears how much Chiron “hates” his mother, yet Chiron knows, and Juan admits to selling her drugs. One of my most critical comments on the film would be that Juan is allowed to fade into the night. We don’t know what happened to him as Chiron matures. We know that he has taught Chiron not to sit with his back to the door.
The teen years are hard, and made harder in this urban Miami tale where anti-gay bullying continues in the classroom. This sequence of scenes is so realistic that every teacher, social worker, and admin. will feel an added stab to the heart. Hall pushing and jostling are shown. Now fifteen and only called Chiron, he is mocked with jibes when he comes into class late: “Chiron forgot to change his tampons.” In the counseling office, the disconnect between student and adult is perfectly rendered by Chiron’s glazed eyes and the musical score. Ashton Sanders seamlessly plays the role of Chiron. We see his reticent, younger self, but his anger is now boiling.
Jharrel Jerome is the teen Kevin, and he succumbs to peer pressure and the ultimate betrayal of his friend and first love. The acting is what makes this film so outstanding. Complex facial expressions, especially with the eyes, mark every close-up. Details like the Royal Crown hood ornament, the dead bugs in the fluorescent light fixture, and the heralding of “Gramma rules”, all add to the realism.
Seven years pass. Chiron is now called Black, a nickname Kevin gave him. We find him with a silver grill, an expansive build, and financially set as a drug dealer. But he is lonely, and a juke-box song reminds him of Kevin. Impulsively , he calls Kevin after almost a decade and drives to Alabama where Kevin works as a cook. Anger is replaced with missing the intimacy that they once had.
Trevante Rhodes takes over this adult-Chiron role, while Andre Holland plays the adult Kevin. Six actors representing two men’s lives meld because of beautiful character acting. The reconnecting is almost adolescent in its stumbling sweetness. The final moonlight shot is satisfying in ways that the film is not. It is slow and choppy, painful to witness, and more profound than entertaining. Oscars for the actors and lessons for those unaware of the harsh lives many are made to lead.