When it comes to the urban downtrodden of America I am now smarter and more enlightened. Moonlight is one of those rare movies that transports you to a place where the people are just above the poverty line (hence 1980’s Miami), and strongly focuses on one character: Chiron, who also is given the nickname Little and Black by neighborhood kids, and Faggot by his crack addicted mother (Naomie Harris). We see Chiron in three different chapters of his life. Pre-teen, teen and a buffer young adult. His huge muscles and stake as drug pusher are a result of being bullied and rejected when young, and now over-compensating machismo in adulthood as a means to survive.
In the opening minutes, Chiron runs for cover in an abandoned apartment where druggies usually hide because there are several boys looking to beat him up. He is befriended by drug dealer Juan (Mahershala Ali) who will mentor the boy, and become a fatherly guardian to him since Chiron has none. Ali is a special actor, one who feels like with his masculine gravitas would loom an influence with a boy through the lasting years. He speaks of authority and conviction, and with the boy, compassion. He disappears after the first act break, and we miss him as much as we assume the boy misses him.
In part two, Chiron is heavily at odds with bullies at school. Patrick Decile, as Terrel, is one of the most mean-spirited and fear-inducing bullies the movies have ever shown us. The schoolyard slang is convincing and frightening, and that draws you in as well as tenses you up. Chiron befriends a kid named Kevin, and a moonlight beach scene becomes his first intimate moment of his life. Imagine a life where a kid never is allowed to drop his guard, and open up, and suddenly there’s this tender moment for him. Part two leaves you wondering how he is going to battle against Terrel, but it’s also introduces his first gay feelings for another person.
Am I alone in believing that Part Three as drama is, uh, a little too intimate and contained? Chiron is this buff adult living in Atlanta, a drug pusher at arm’s length, who gets a phone call from Kevin. He decides to revisit his mother in Miami, and indeed, go see his long lost friend who runs a late night diner. It’s a twelve minute scene inside the restaurant that feels like a drawn-out twenty. Barry Jenkins, the director, has storytelling grip because he wants you to feel the anxiety and awkwardness of this chance re-encounter. “Moonlight” is keenly observed drama, one that pays off when we get to see Chiron finally express himself. Yes, it’s truly effective, yet there’s a part of me that says it is also a tad too minimalist and chaste without going full guts.
I am reviewing “Moonlight” after it has become the most surprise Best Picture winner ever at the Academy Awards, and sealing the maxim that no comedy or musical – no matter how sublime and gorgeous (I’m talking “La La Land”) is probably never going to win. Best Picture has become the Pet Social Issue Award Winner that offers needed conscience on the current American climate. “Moonlight” is more than just that, to be fair, it is sincere, affecting, moving. And Ali, well, leaves an everlasting impression of how to be a good man with graces even if his occupation is contemptible. My heart grew.
Alex Hibbert, Ashton Sanders and Trevante Rhodes are the three actors who play Chiron in different stages of life.
110 Minutes. Rated R.
DRAMA / ADULT ORIENTATION / PROVOCATIVE MOOD