starring Trevante Rhodes, André Holland, Janelle Monáe, Mahershala Ali
screenplay by Barry Jenkins
directed by Barry Jenkins
by Walter Chaw Barry Jenkins's sophomore feature is lovely. It deals with ideas of masculinity and black culture with sensitivity and a dedicated Romanticism. It's buoyed by a trio of remarkable performers--all playing the same character, Chiron, at three different stages of his life: troubled child, troubled teen, and troubled adult. They share mannerisms. They have the same vulnerable quiver to their lip. I don't know how Jenkins and his team put that together, but there it is and it's among the most affecting things I've seen in a film. It's overwhelming. Visually, Moonlight reminds me a lot of David Gordon Green's similarly lyrical George Washington. It captures a certain reflective poetry in the poverty and privation it depicts. There's a moment in the second section, "ii. Chiron," that finds the teen incarnation (Ashton Sanders), all elbows and gawkiness, alone on a beach with his only friend, Kevin (Jharrel Jerome), looking up at the stars and discovering for a second who it is that he really is. Jenkins demonstrates patience with medium shots. He frames the boys against the water before them and the city behind them like Eliot's hero, in liminal spaces, experiencing catastrophic change.
It's not an accident that Jenkins names his hero after the centaur who tutored Achilles and Hercules--who didn't drink (neither does our Chiron), who martyred himself eventually in exchange for the release of Prometheus (imprisoned for the crime of bringing knowledge to man). I don't know if Jenkins entirely trusts the poetry of his images and his obvious and prodigious skill with actors. He should, more. When the film becomes didactic, it also becomes appreciably less instructive. Chiron's mother, Paula (Naomie Harris), for instance, is a drug addict who begins as cold and descends into screeching archetype. She's set against saintly maternal figure (mother) Teresa (Janelle Monáe), who, along with her drug-dealing husband Juan (Mahershala Ali), shelters the 10-year-old incarnation of Chiron, "Little" (Alex R. Hibbert), from Paula's whoring and raging. Jenkins is playing out a narrow line here. He's dealing on the one side with a charged figure and, on the other, with an unambiguously idealized one. It's a good way to describe the picture as a whole: Moonlight is always in tension with itself. Sometimes it wins and turns into something absolutely, rapturously lovely. Sometimes it loses.
The first section ends with Little asking Juan if Little's mother does drugs. Then he asks if Juan sells drugs. Then he stands up from the dinner table and walks out of the house. Juan's reaction is a powerhouse moment. Jenkins ends his first two segments with powerhouse moments. He fumbles the third. The second part centres on Chiron in awkward adolescence, beaten daily by bullies and continuing his relationships with his two mothers. There are painful scenes of betrayal. There's a fight. And then the third segment, featuring a buffed specimen of an adult Chiron, called "Black" (Trevante Rhodes) now after a nickname given him by Kevin, takes on Juan's implements of power and profession on the streets. Jenkins has structured Moonlight as Greek Tragedy: a three-act play in which the hero rises, fulfills a prophecy, and discovers that the enemy is himself. It's a brilliant way to tell the poor black experience and a brilliant way, too, to tell the gay experience. At its best, Moonlight transcends individual minority experiences and details the universal pain of exclusion and the desire for acceptance.
There's a devastating moment late in the film when Kevin (André Holland), now a short-order cook and waiter at a corner diner, talks about how his ordinary life is fulfillment of the dream: pleasure in Sisyphusian struggle. But it's not played as devastating--it's part of a resolution that is essentially hopeful, beginning with a rapprochement for Paula and ending there in the diner with Kevin and Black, speaking truth to each other at last. It feels good. It feels unlikely. You're glad because you're rooting for Chiron in all his incarnations, but you sense the movie doesn't entirely know how to stick the landing, so it goes to a place where everything, unironically, works out for everyone. The performances by Hibbert, Sanders, and Rhodes are absolutely organic, absolutely genuine, shockingly immediate. When Black, a monstrous vision, reveals himself to be excruciatingly human, Moonlight discovers its soul. It's the stereotype destroyed with a soft gesture, and completely earned. When Jenkins rewards that vulnerability with healing and acceptance, he reveals his kindness and optimism. Moonlight is a heartstruck film about human tragedy. I love so much of it. I just wish I believed the road ended where it does.