Saturday, November 5, 2016


 5 / 5 

A few minutes after Moonlight ended I was thinking about the physical beauty of the movie, and about the way it was put together, considering its considerable technical achievements, when I started to cry.  It took me a while to realize just how moved I had been by this movie, and that may well be by design.

Moonlight makes no effort to tell a universal story of a hero who could just as easily be any of us.  Its story is a specific one, and pointedly so -- because its director, Barry Jenkins (who wrote the screenplay from a story by Tarell Alvin McCraney) knows just how used we are to seeing movies that tell stories about people who are entirely unlike Moonlight's protagonist.

We've all seen movies in which rich white people muse about their lives in Santa Monica or ponder why things are so difficult in modern London.  They look for love in the urban jungles of New York, meeting cute while bumping heads getting into the taxi after dropping off their child at a private preschool. Moonlight may not be trying to deny the truth of those movies, but it doesn't exactly endorse them, either.

Instead, it takes us to a place we almost never see depicted in modern storytelling: a black slum that isn't in South Central or New York.  Moonlight is mostly set in and around Liberty City, Miami's notoriously violent, drug-laden neighborhood.  Half of its residents live in poverty and a third are unemployed. Jenkins and his film are justifiably outraged about this, but Moonlight is not a movie about politics or race relations or social apathy.

It's the singular story of a boy named Chiron (say it like "Tyrone" with an "sh" at the front), who has grown up all his life knowing his single mother is addicted to drugs.  She gets some of her drugs from Juan, who one day finds Chiron running away from school bullies.  Juan has no idea that his drug-dealing connects him to Chiron, and since the traumatized little boy won't talk to him, Juan takes him home.  His wife, Theresa, coaxes some information out of the kid: Everyone calls him "Little."

That's how the first part of Moonlight starts.  The movie plays out in three clearly delineated chapters: the first shows how Juan becomes the only father figure Little has ever known.  The second shows how the world continues to heap abuse on high-school aged Chiron.  In the third, he's known as Black, and though he's probably not even out of his twenties yet, all he knows is regret -- until he gets an unexpected phone call.

In two of the sections, Chiron gets a fleeting moment of happiness, each of which happens along the beach, a place that is only a few miles from his home but seems impossibly out of reach.  In the third, Chiron returns to the beach, and to the possibility of happiness, and Moonlight leaves us wondering if he will be able to to get it.

The odds, it has to be acknowledged, aren't good.  But Moonlight, despite its seething anger at the unfairness of life, tries to find optimism and even romance in its hard and mean surroundings, and it plays all of its emotions with a muted caution that is both unnerving and artful.  In one integral moment, Chiron's mother summons all the hatred she has toward the world, pulls it all into her, then hurls stinging, poisonous words at her only son, but Jenkins removes the sound -- we can't hear the words, but they are no less painful.  In another key moment, the death of a major character is revealed in passing, as if this kind of tragedy and loss is an everyday part of Chiron's life.

And throughout all of it, there's the truth that Moonlight is almost as fearful to reveal as Chiron is himself, because it's already hard enough for him: Chiron is gay.  He knows it almost from the start.  Certainly his mother knows -- it's yet another reason for her to reject him, as if he needed another.  Juan and Theresa know, too, and urge him only to make his own way in the world.

But that is what Moonlight knows is the hardest thing to do, not just for Chiron, but for anyone.  His way out of Liberty City is already unlikely enough; the last thing he needs is a reason for it to be harder.   Maybe that's why he hardly speaks: He can't think of anything to say that would help.

Moonlight casts three remarkable actors in the role of Chiron: Alex Hibbert as Little, Ashton Sanders as Chiron, and Trevante Rhodes as Black.  They share the extraordinary ability to convey both quiet strength and silent anxiety, to balance Chiron's seemingly dual nature as frightened and injured but determined to get through life with dignity intact.

And while it's not quite as showy a role, Moonlight offers up a second character whose played by three different actors: Chiron's best friend Kevin (Jaden Piner, Jharrel Jerome and André Holland), who orbits Chiron's life like a moon whose tides inexorably pull him back to Miami.

Those two central roles, and six fearless performances, are enhanced by the genuinely breathtaking performances of Naomie Harris (who couldn't be more different than her Bond "girl" role -- she is spectacularly raw here), who plays Chiron's mother; Mahershala Ali as Juan; and Janelle Monáe as Theresa.  All three exude a tangible presence even when they're not on screen.

Yet it's the three actors playing Chiron who dominate, and while it seems unfair to single one out, we're left, in the end, with Rhodes' Black, who has tried to remake himself in the physical image of the only man he's ever really admired, but who seems still reticent and afraid despite his hulking, imposing physical presence.

And in its final act, Moonlight does something I've never seen a movie do this effectively, persuasively or beautifully: It shows two men being emotionally and physically romantic, and makes us forget almost completely about their gender.  Moonlight makes us forget, in those moments, that we're watching the story of a gay, black drug dealer -- all we care about in the end is all Moonlight wants us to care about: That Chiron is a person who wants to be loved.

With artistry, beauty, honesty, anger and forgiveness, Moonlight demonstrates that movies, when they are really good, bind us to the characters they show, make us feel what they feel and know what they know.  Moonlight is not simply really good.  In a particularly good year for films, Moonlight is one of the very best.

Viewed Nov. 5, 2016 -- ArcLight Sherman Oaks


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