Remarkable is the only word for Moonlight. It’s a love story and a story of childhood; it’s also a movie about being, in jazzman Charles Mingus’ phrase, “beneath the underdog.”
Across several episodes, Barry Jenkins (of Medicine for Melancholy) directs the story of some 12 years in the life of Chiron, an undersized boy from the Liberty City neighborhood in Miami. Chiron is played by three actors: Alex Hibbert, Ashton Sanders and Trevante Rhodes.
Young Chiron has been badly bullied, hiding his homosexuality from everyone, ever since his mother (Naomie Harris, in her best-ever performance) called him a “faggot.” Chiron has a kind of surrogate father figure for a while—a passerby named Juan (Mahershala Ali), who rescues the boy from a pack of bullies and takes the kid home for a meal with his girlfriend Teresa (Janelle Monae).
Jenkins’ skill is such that you can feel both sides of the tension—the man’s urge to help on the one side, the boy’s nerves on the other. Matters get more complex when Chiron discovers his attraction to his friend Kevin (played by Jharrel Jerome in adolescence and Andre Holland, of Cinemax period drama The Knick, in adulthood). The budding friendship is crushed by a thug looking for some fun.
In adulthood, Chiron has big muscles and a pistol of his own; the mask of toughness is on him, but we know better. As played by Rhodes, what we see in the older Chiron is what can be seen beneath Mike Tyson’s own mask—if you get a good look at Tyson, you see a man who got his start in boxing because someone hit him first.
We witness the abashed way Chiron detaches his gold grillwork before he eats. We see the hope he doesn’t want to show when he finally sits down and makes eye-contact with the adult Kevin; all grown up, he’s now a charming guy with heavy lidded eyes and slightly elfin ears.
Moonlight is a movie about people who never get into the movies unless they’re holding guns. Even without a single gunshot in it, this peculiarly acute film is the most eloquent movie about the corrosive trauma of ghetto life since Killer of Sheep (1978). The walls and the windows don’t keep people out. Living there requires the constant reading of apparently friendly strangers to find out their intentions. Situations change fast. Every conversation starts out masked, involving a search for ulterior motives.
A lesser version of this film would have been something like a dull gay date movie, with urban sauce to dip it in. Moonlight is made with a wider focus, as an attempt to get a slice of the world around Chiron’s long journey to find love and closeness. And Jenkins tells his story without melodrama. Some of the worst things that happen—a stint in jail and the death of a major character—happen off screen.
The visuals, by cinematographer James Laxton, are keen and fresh. No matter what it’s like to live in Liberty City, the neighborhood’s pastel houses and palms lighten the spirit. Jenkins stops to watch as a group of boys play soccer with a wadded newspaper. Chiron’s walk home from school, into a forest of waving laundry on clotheslines between the one-story apartments, is strangely lyrical. And there are moments of escape: particularly a soon-to-be-famous moment in which Chiron learns to swim in the ocean while being cradled in Juan’s arms.
It’s somehow hard to define great direction—it’s easier to define its absence—but Jenkins is surely a great director, as can be seen by his wielding of the power of a closeup, a two shot, by his knowledge of when to drop out the sound, to go against the grain of a scene, or the decision to give a wheedling junkie an incandescent, beguiling smile. He’s got it all and more.
R; 110 Mins.