One of the best films of the year.
Director: Barry Jenkins (Medicine for Melancholy)
Cast: Alex R. Hibbert, Mahershala Ali (The Free State of Jones)
Runtime: 1hr 50 min
by John DeSando
“At some point you've got to decide for yourself who you gonna be. And let nobody make that decision.” Juan (Mahershala Ali)
Because I favor minimalist drama to florid or overheated melodrama, Moonlight fits my needs perfectly. The story is about a kid, then as a teen, then as an adult, somewhat like Richard Linklater’s Boyhood in its sweep of a young man’s life. Only this story is more unusual, originally created by Tarell Alvin McCrane in short story form called In Moonlight Black Boys Look Blue.
Little or Chiron (Alex R. Hibbert) is indeed a little adolescent finding out slowly his sexuality is not like most other boys’. He’s black and gay while barely knowing it; what he does know is that the bullies know and pursue and persecute him for being different.
The first of the three sections deals with his unfavorable youth (druggie mom and absent dad) and his favorable association with kind adult Juan, who gives Little love and life lessons but who has a dark secret waiting to explode. Little is learning about love in its many forms, and he’s better for that discovery. Life proving to be a mixed bag of good and bad is a strength of this film.
In his teen years, Chiron’s (Ashton Sanders) segment begins to lag as nothing new occurs including the lingering bullying from a dread-locked antagonist. Yet the moment of gay connection occurs with Kevin (Jharrel Jerome) in a love scene of such delicacy that other directors could take lessons in this sensual minimalism.
Finally as an adult, Chiron (Trevante Rhodes), now called “Black,” drives a vintage sedan just as his early adult friend, Juan, did and becomes a dealer like Juan. He even physically resembles the ripped and low-key Juan. Indeed Black is not the weak kid we knew through two thirds of the film. Writer/director Barry Jenkins has done the magic of character arc-making, for Black is gentle and lonely the way Juan didn’t seem to be.
As the arc gently goes down, with repeated plays of Aretha Franklin’s One Step Ahead, so does Kevin (now as an adult played by Andre Holland) become again the vulnerable but now stronger Little grown up. His life is not as we might have hoped it to be, but what it is, it is: minimal and with goodness he always had.
Moonlight bathes itself in small moments of love and coming of age. Through it all the director has kept Little’s character intact and our attention locked into a narrative with enormous wealth. Moonlight is one of the best films of the year; I hope Oscar is paying attention.
John DeSando, a Los Angeles Press Club first-place winner for National Entertainment Journalism, hosts WCBE’s It’s Movie Time and co-hosts Cinema Classics. Contact him at JDeSando@Columbus.rr.com