With “Moonlight,” writer-director Barry Jenkins subtly achieves a radical end, telling the story of an impoverished African-American man and his search for a home, for a place to feel loved and whole, over the course of three eras in his life.
This is a movie set in an on-screen world that feels familiar, the American inner city, in this case one of Miami’s toughest neighborhoods. But it meticulously defies the conventions typically associated with movies about that milieu.
In quiet and reserved fashion, Jenkins (basing his work on an unproduced play by Tarell Alvin McCraney) crafts a narrative that offers a complete picture of this protagonist while simultaneously maintaining the mysteries that characterize our deepest inner selves.
Told in three chapters, “Moonlight” follows Chiron as he ages from a young, shy boy in the 1980s (Alex Hibbert), to a teenager (Ashton Sanders) experiencing the turmoil of being lonely and gay in a universe that can’t understand him and, finally, as a young man (Trevante Rhodes) thrust into an existence on the streets that he once seemed fated to escape from.
There’s an urgency to what Jenkins is doing here that only becomes fully apparent when one considers the degree to which the picture diverges from expectations. It is filled with characters who resist being defined by their circumstances, most notably the drug dealer Juan (Mahershala Ali), who one day finds the young Chiron hidden in a dope house and forms a close, fatherly bond with a scared, silent child at a moment where it’s desperately needed.
With camerawork that skillfully alternates between vivid close-ups, unrelenting handheld tracking shots and expressive still work at medium distances, Jenkins perfectly orchestrates a snapshot of the transformative moments that collectively provide the texture and story of this life.
The actors are extraordinary, deftly playing on the work of their counterparts to provide a unified portrait of an individual desperately searching for happiness, trying to comprehend his place in the world and distrustful of the small joys that occasionally interrupt a life on the margins.
It is a collective portrait of alienation with scenes that are as raw and devastating as anything put on-screen in recent memory. There’s a dinner table conversation between the youngest Chiron, Juan and Juan’s girlfriend Teresa (Janelle Monae), where the protagonist asks some heartbreaking questions; the teenage Chiron struggles to comprehend his first sexual experience with another man amid a world that has made him feel as if such desires were forbidden; there are the harrowing nightmares and lonely drives taken by an adult Chiron, as he considers the path that led him to such an unhappy place.
It is a coming-of-age story that dares to directly question commonly-held notions of masculinity, while being unafraid to consider the fundamental nature of love between men on sexual and paternal levels.
This is a subject that’s hardly ever explored in movies, period, certainly not those set on these streets, in these homes and about this community. Thus “Moonlight” is more than a compelling movie about desire and loneliness, as it’s experienced at three points in a single man’s life. It’s the sort of picture that can deepen understandings, inspire new conversations and help us better appreciate our common humanity.