“MOONLIGHT” My rating: B+
110 minutes | MPAA rating: R
Think of Barry Jenkins’ “Moonlight” as an African-American variation on Richard Linklater’s “Boyhood.” It is an epic chronicle of childhood giving way to adolescence, and adolescence becoming a lonely adulthood.
The difference is that “Boyhood” was pretty much straightforward storytelling, while “Moonlight” is pure poetry. It is, in short, a genuine black art film, filled with beauty and horror, small comforts and big challenges.
Through the character of Chiron, a young Floridian played by three actors of different ages, writer/director Bennett gives us a deeply personal story which, without belaboring the point, can stand for the experiences of hundreds of thousands of young black men.
It’s not about drugs or poverty or gang life per se, and there’s no obviously political agenda (in fact white people are almost never seen), but “Moonlight” cannot help folding those socially relevant topics into its narrative.
At the same time the movie is less about facts (it’s filled with unanswered questions) than about feelings. It’s about a few seconds of blessed respite during a suffocatingly tense day, about water and sand and tropical heat, about activity fearfully captured out of the corner of one’s eye.
In one sense it’s practically documentary without the usual big dramatic speeches (the film’s protagonist is incapable of verbal grandstanding), but captured in a swirling riot of camera movement, color and conflicting sounds.
When we first meet Chiron (Alex Hibbert), or Little as he’s called by just about everyone, he’s hiding in an abandoned apartment building, having been pursued by schoolyard bullies. As his name suggests, Little is small. Also shy, withdrawn, mistrustful and uncommunicative.
He’s rescued by Juan (Mahershala Ali), the neighborhood drug lord, who provides safe escort and takes the boy to his apartment and his nurturing girlfriend Teresa (KCK native Janelle Monae, making a seemingly effortless transition from pop stardom to film acting).
Over the course of weeks and months the cocaine slinger and his woman will become Little’s surrogate parents, providing food, shelter and — as weird as it may sound — examples of more-or-less responsible adulthood…something painfully lacking in Little’s relationship with his increasingly drug dependent mother (Naomie Harris).
Ali (sure to be honored as a supporting actor Oscar nominee) makes of Juan a deeply complex figure. He’s a criminal, but his relationship with Little is one of selfless nurturing. Countless films have prepared us for Ali to use the kid as part of his drug business, but that never happens.
Instead he takes the boy to the beach and gently coaxes him into learning to float on the rocking waves. When Little asks, “Am I a faggot?” Juan answers with profound sincerity that Little may be gay, but he’s no faggot.
Other life lessons follow. “No place in this world ain’t got black people,” Juan declares. “We were the first people here.”
And especially: “At some point you gotta decide for yoursdrelf who you gonna be.” (more…)