Moonlight

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Moonlight

The tricky childhood of a poor Miami kid is the subject of Barry Jenkins finely etched indie portrait of African-American life.

The first miracle of Barry Jenkins’s exquisite coming-of-age drama Moonlight—a heartbreaker filled with many such miracles—happens around a kitchen table. We’ve already seen the quiet, sullen Chiron (Alex Hibbert), a 10-year-old with frightened eyes, being chased by bullies; his short life has been a confused and painful one. And while the two adults who lean in aren’t his parents (one of them is actually the drug dealer selling to Chiron’s crack-addicted mom), they somehow 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), alluded to a whole universe of African-American issues rarely explored onscreen, now goes even further into sociocultural terrain that here finds an uncommonly poetic voice. The barely-getting-by Miami of Moonlight—a place of needle-strewn drug dens, cheapo diners and the hot breeze that laps the shore at night—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 crucial 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 a character who ultimately gets three versions, all delicately shaded. (Trevante Rhodes’s muscle-bound adult Chiron, hiding his pain behind a scary façade, is yet to come.) Moonlight eases into these phases with literary confidence: 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, with the film exploding into lush moments of classically scored Truffaut­–like sensation. 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 Moonlight’s final passage—a decade later, with Chiron in the suggestive company of an old friend (André Holland), a romantic song playing on the jukebox—there’s no sequence this year that matches it. Moonlight takes the pain of growing up and turns it into hardened scars and private caresses. This film is, without a doubt, the reason we go to the movies: to understand, to come closer, to ache—hopefully with another.

Follow Joshua Rothkopf on Twitter: @joshrothkopf

By: Joshua Rothkopf

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Release details

Release date: Friday October 21 2016
Duration: 110 mins

Cast and crew

Director: Barry Jenkins
Screenwriter: Barry Jenkins
Cast: Alex R. Hibbert
Ashton Sanders
Trevante Rhodes
Naomie Harris
Andre Holland
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