Barry Jenkins‘ Moonlight, which I saw last night at 8 pm, is a gentle, sensitive saga of a gay Miami black dude named Chiron. The story is told in three chapters over a 16-year period. Three actors portray this extremely guarded and hidden soul — Alex Hibbert as the little-kid version (nicknamed “Little”), Ashton Sanders as the teenage version and Trevante Rhodes as the adult version (called “Black”) in his mid 20s.
Moonlight didn’t destroy me or rock my soul, but I was impressed and moved. I admired it as far as it went. I just had to adjust myself to what it is as opposed to the earth-shaker that some have been describing.
Trevante Rhodes during third-act scene of Barry Jenkins’ Moonlight.
Jenkins (who has worked for years as a senior Telluride Film Festival volunteer) knows what he’s doing, and the subject, for me, is a unique thing. I’ve never seen a “travails of black closeted gay guy” movie before, and this one quietly works on its own terms.
With Birth of a Nation all but out of the race, will Moonlight take its place as the reigning black-experience Best Picture nominee? Or will Denzel Washington‘s Fences be the champ? Or will they both make the cut? Hard to say. I have no dog in this — I’m just watching and wondering. Moonlight is very quiet and specific and soft-spoken, but it never really builds up a head of steam. Which is fine with me. I respected the quiet, deliberate, soft-spoken scheme.
I was particularly affected by the performance of Mahershala Ali as Juan, a kindly drug dealer who offers paternal comfort to Chiron in his younger years. Ditto Andre Holland, the older incarnation of a bisexual named Kevin, the only guy whom the closeted Chiron has connected with his entire life.
I also admired Janelle Monae‘s portrayal as Teresa, Juan’s live-in girlfriend. (I’ve been told that Manae, a recording artist and model, gives the standout performance in Hidden Figures.) I was also stirred by Naomie Harris‘s capturing of Paula, Chiron’s tormented, drug-dependent mom.
In his introductory remarks last night at the Chuck Jones theatre theatre and opera director Peter Sellars called Moonlight “a masterpiece.” If I were A24 I would tell Sellars to cool it. Moonlight is highly commendable but over-praising isn’t a good idea unless the film in question can really, really live up that term.
Jenkins’ screenplay is an adaptation of Tarell Alvin McCraney‘s play “In Moonlight Black Boys Look Blue.” It reflects Jenkins and McCraney’s childhood experience in a run-down Miami neighborhood in which drug dealing is a significant economic and cultural factor.
Poor Chiron is tormented as young kid, his macho classmates having somehow sensed that he’s “soft.” His mom offering little if any comfort, Juan comes along at a vulnerable moment and offers some much-needed kindness as a sort of surrogate dad. The teenage Chiron is just as miserable for the most part, but he does hook up with young Kevin (Jharrel Jerome) so at least there’s that. Naturally the oldest Chiron (Rhodes), brawny and cautious and selling drugs himself, is the least vulnerable.
While the first two chapters are largely about uncertainty and occasional torment, the third chapter offers what appears to be a new start for Chiron, having finally acted upon his feelings and perhaps looking at a future that involves a certain self-awareness.