The first miracle of Barry Jenkins’s exquisite coming-of-age drama ‘Moonlight’ – and this heartbreaker of a film is filled with miracles – happens around a kitchen table. We’ve already seen quiet, sullen Chiron (Alex Hibbert), a 10-year-old with frightened eyes, being chased by bullies. The two adults sitting around the table aren’t his parents (one of them is actually the drug dealer selling crack to Chiron’s addict mum), but somehow they know the exact words to say when the boy softly asks them, ‘Am I a faggot?’
Jenkins, an indie director whose first feature, ‘Medicine for Melancholy’ (2008), delved into a whole universe of African-American issues rarely explored onscreen, now goes even further, and with an uncommonly poetic voice. The barely-getting-by Miami of ‘Moonlight’ – a place of needle-strewn drug dens and cheapo diners – bears little resemblance to the one we usually see in the movies. But the film is more radical for articulating an internal sexual turbulence that doesn’t fit the stereotype. It’s not the one laid down by ‘Brokeback Mountain’ or other key gay stories but something new, seething with anxiety, similar to the vibe you feel in the tense, ticking beats of Frank Ocean.
Chiron grows into a pinch-faced, haunted teenager (Ashton Sanders), the second portrayal of the character, who is played by three actors in the film. (Trevante Rhodes’s muscle-bound adult Chiron, hiding his pain behind a scary facade, is yet to come.) The script is based on Tarell McCraney’s autobiographical play ‘In Moonlight Black Boys Look Blue’, but Jenkins throws off the constraints of the stage: at one point, the camera swirls with a bully who circles like a shark. It’s a frightening spiral that suggests cycles with no end.
As for the final passage – a decade later, with Chiron in the company of an old friend (André Holland), a romantic song playing on the jukebox – there’s no sequence this year that matches it. This film is, without a doubt, the reason we go to the movies.