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Movie Review: “Moonlight”

"Moonlight," Ashton Sanders
Photo credit:
David Bornfriend

Growing up on the mean streets of poverty is difficult enough without having to do it with no father and a mother who’s a drug addict.

Playwright Tarell McCraney and Director Barry Jenkins can both speak to that from personal experience.

Both grew up in the violent projects of Miami, though not at the same time. McCraney wrote about it in an early play called “In the Moonlight Black Boys Look Blue.” Jenkins adapted the play for “Moonlight,” a heartrending exploration of a boy’s search for identity and belonging. 

“Moonlight” opens with 9-year-old Chiron, called Little (Alex Hibbert) running from bullying tormenters into a vacant house, where a man named Juan (Mahershala Ali) finds the terrified child, takes him to get something to eat, and then home with him.

There he meets Juan’s girlfriend Teresa (Janelle Monáe). 

Though it turns out that Juan is a drug dealer and Little’s mom Paula (Naomie Harris) is increasingly a user of Juan’s merchandise, Little comes to regard their place as more home than with his own mother. 

“Moonlight” highlights the boy’s life at three ages: nine, 16 (when he is called Chiron) and again at 30, when he is known as Black.

Little does make one friend in the projects: Kevin (Jaden Piner, at 9), who clues him in to one fact: that he cannot afford to be seen as “soft” by the bullies. He will learn another heartbreaking and horrifying lesson at 16 (Chiron now played by Aston Sanders, Kevin by Jharrel Jerome), at the hands of other bullies.

At this age Chiron will also begin to acknowledge to himself that he is gay.

Chiron and Kevin meet again as young adults (played by Trevante Rhodes and André Holland, respectively), to find that their lives have gone in very different directions.

Late in the film, Kevin asks him, “Who is you, man?” It’s not an uninformed question; Chiron has been trying to establish that for himself since childhood.

Jenkins’ story has all the physicality and violence one would expect, but the real story is told more quietly, in the eyes and gestures of Chiron and Kevin rather than words and actions.

These are kids who have not been taught to verbalize but cannot hide their emotions, whether or not they are willing (or able) to express them. 

Even the score (by Nicholas Britell) plays an important part, but does not try to overwhelm the story (or pound home its points) as is often the case in film. It begins quietly, with Mozart, and  (difficult as this is for me to understand) moves to hip-hop in a natural progression. I know. But it works.

Cinematographer James Laxton uses the beach and the water around Miami to suggest a calm that may be seen but is not felt by these characters. And these fine actors make the most of what is – and is not – on the page, making “Moonlight” one of the year’s best films.

“Moonlight” opens Nov. 4 at Landmark Hillcrest Cinemas and Angelika Carmel Mountain.