Starring Trevante Rhodes, Andre Holland, Naomie Harris, Janelle Monae and Mahershala Ali. Written for the screen and directed by Barry Jenkins.

“What’s with the fronts?” Kevin asks his old pal Chiron, referring to the ridiculous silver grills sported by the latter on his teeth. It’s been many years since these childhood friends have seen one another and this swaggering, thugged-out dealer could not be further from the sensitive, introverted boy Kevin once knew. Or is Chiron’s hard posturing just another “front,” as tacky a put-on as his mouthful of metal? Kevin asks him pointedly, “Who is you, man?”

Such questions of identity are central to writer-director Barry Jenkins’ Moonlight, a work of extraordinary empathy about the kind of character we seldom meet at the cinema. Young black men from bad neighborhoods aren’t often allowed to be vulnerable in movies, and they’re never allowed to be gay. Adapted from Tarell Alvin McCraney’s play, In Moonlight Black Boys Look Blue, the film tells Chiron’s story in three clearly demarcated acts – first boyhood and then adolescence, before this reunion with Kevin in early adulthood.

“Am I a faggot?” the nine-year-old Chiron (Alex R. Hibbert) asks Juan, a local dope dealer who has taken a shine to the hapless lad. Played by Mahershala Ali as a kind man who does bad things, Juan is stirred by the child’s aching eyes and invites him home for meals, only sometimes to the consternation of his gal Teresa (Janelle Monae). “You might be gay, but you’re not a faggot,” our oddly progressive Juan warmly informs the youth. The three form a surrogate family that provides blessed relief from Chrion’s real mom (Naomie Harris) and her erratic behavior as a regular customer of Juan’s. So beautifully gentle and nurturing are the performances of Ali and Monae that I enjoyed these scenes enormously without once believing them for a second.

Years of bullying at school and relentless abuse from his druggy mom have already begun to harden Chiron (now played by Ashton Sanders) when we catch up with him just a few years later. High school is presented here as series of macho rituals ranging from absurd to cruel. The toxic masculinity even infects young, good-hearted Kevin (Jharrel Jerome), who carries on at great length about all things pussy even though he has far more in common with our protagonist than his yammering might lead you to believe. The two share an intimate moment in the moonlight of the title, before Chiron’s life takes yet another tragic turn.

The expressionistic flourishes employed by director Jenkins and cinematographer James Laxton seem intended to conjure a sensation of memory, shrouding Moonlight in something like the dreamy rapture of Wong Kar-Wai’s movies and their lush pillows of regret. Problem is that I don’t think either of these guys quite has the chops to pull off what they’re aiming for yet (Laxton recently shot Yoga Hosers) and a lot of the oddly disjointed camera angles and shallow-focus tricks come off as more distracting than evocative. Ditto for how the film sometimes coyly obscures simple narrative information, throwing up another self-conscious level of artifice between us and the characters for no good reason.

(Also, could someone please declare a moratorium on indie movies kicking off with a braggadocio unbroken long-take announcing the director’s virtuosity underneath the opening credits? It drove me crazy in Hell Or High Water and feels equally obnoxious here. This is becoming a bigger Sundance cliché than the end-of-the-second-act car accident. Birdman’s over boys, you can stop comparing the length of your shots.)

But all such quibbles dissolve in the film’s truly transformative third act, in which Chiron is now played by the remarkable Trevante Rhodes and Kevin by The Knick’s magnificent street-brawling surgeon, Andre Holland. It is here that Moonlight’s theatrical origins emerge and we are treated to their reunion played out almost in real time. As demonstrated in Jenkins’ first feature, 2008’s winning, morning-after-a-one-night-stand comedy Medicine For Melancholy, he’s got a knack for letting his characters talk their way around one other’s defense mechanisms and insecurities. Even the filmmaking seems to settle down, allowing these actors to carry the scenes instead of goosing them along with trick shots. Like Chiron, the movie takes off the fronts.

Moonlight has become an unexpected smash on the arthouse circuit, I think because it’s legitimately thrilling to see these two lost souls – straitjacketed for so long by our poisonous culture’s concepts of what it means to be a man – at long last able to share a meal and speak about what could never be said. It’s exhilarating to watch Chiron and Kevin finally just be who they are.


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