Moonlight (2016)Reviewed By Jay Seaver
Posted 10/29/16 02:50:02
Barry Jenkins has not been idle in the seven or so years since his debut feature "Medicine for Melancholy" premiered, but it often takes a bit of luck to catch a director's short films at festivals, making it feel like he disappeared or went into some sort of cocoon. That serves to make "Moonlight" feel like an exciting discovery both for those who have seen the prior movie and the much larger audience that hasn't, and make no mistake, it is something exciting for film lovers, a fresh, intimate portrait that never gets too caught up in its somewhat unusual structure.It's not a complicated one, simply spending roughly equal amounts of time in three periods of one persons life. Jenkins introduces Chiron to the audience as a 9-year-old called "Little" (Alex Hibbert), a quiet boy from a rough black neighborhood in Miami who is cruelly bullied, befriended by local drug dealer Juan (Mahershala Ali) after taking refugee in a crack house, although there are a fair number of doors it takes a while for him to connect despite being a resourceful kids. The bullying hadn't stopped by the time he's become a teenager (Ashton Sanders), with Terrel (Patrick Decile) being particularly hard on him, although, on the other hand, it's looking like here might be something between him and classmate Kevin (Jharrel Jerome). Maybe not right away, but ten years or so later, when Chiron has moved to Atlanta and started dealing under the name of "Black" (Trevante Rhodes), only to receive a call from Kevin (André Holland) out of the blue.
Jenkins built his screenplay from an unproduced play by Tarell Alvin McCraney, and it's easy to imagine that play having a very different structure, maybe stretching out the third act where Chiron and Kevin are sitting in a diner, talking, maybe discussing what happens in the first two segments rather than showing it. It's a smooth, charming sequence, with what tensions it has low-key, the whole thing lubricated by how André Holland connects with how the adult Kevin is not just the person most comfortable in his own skin in the entire movie, but aware of that. Even when he starts challenging Black during their conversation, it feels natural and accommodating, locating the burden of deciding who Little/Chiron/Black is going to choose to be on the man himself, but not isolating him.
Chiron deciding who he is going to be is a big deal that can be felt in the way the film is structured; each of the three segments takes its name from one of the names Chiron has, and it's somewhat telling that even though the entire middle segment is called "Chiron", it feels as though the time between him being called "Little" and "Black" is impossibly short, if the two do not actually overlap. That's set up as a potential tragedy early on, as Juan cautions Chiron not to let other people define his identity, suggesting that he only got to be himself for one brief moment. The profession of that quest for a self feels write natural as the film advances from segment to segment - lacking enough information to even know what direction to go as a child, starting to emerge only to have important characteristics literally beaten down, and later so clearly trying to be someone else that one might initially wonder if Jenkins has made the unusual decision to have Mahershala Ali play the adult Black as well as Juan, so clearly has Chiron modeled his adult persona on the only father figure he's ever really had, with a bit of extra artifice added.
That's not the case, though he had been a little unorthodox in how he handles the casting of Chiron and Kevin - though it would not be surprising if he cast Holland as the adult Kevin and worked backwards, as he is much more central in the third part than the other two, the three iterations of Chiron get roughly equal time, so there's no "lead" versus "supporting" distinction here, and all the actors are allowed to make Chiron their own without doing an imitation. All three impress, especially since younger actors Alex Hibbert and Ashton Sanders are often called upon to use their eyes and body language more than their voices, with Hibbert introduced running and spending most of his time guarded and tense while Sanders plays it more as anger and hostility, with just a few powerful moments of fleeing peace. Trevante Rhodes makes a fascinating contrast to them - as a man who knows some of how the world works, "Black" has learned to not wear his heart on his sleeve, and that reticence becomes his defining trait, making his early interaction with a corner kid feel contrived in a way that serves his character, and there's a cautious eagerness as he reunites with Kevin.
Even with Holland likely setting the tone, something similar happens with Kevin, even as he's always written as the outgoing complement to Chiron - Holland's easy cool is a very different take than the peacock of a teen Jharrel Jerome plays. There's also some very nice work where the adults whose characters age with makeup and costuming are concerned, with Janelle Monáe perking up scenes as the closest thing to a stabilizing influence the teenage Chiron has in his life while Naomie Harris does an impressive slow-motion train crash as his mother. Ali is quietly terrific as the dealer who serves as a surrogate father, warm in his scenes but always just out of place enough in this role that his day job is never forgotten.
The film is effective for more reasons than impressive acting as well. As much as there are clear time jumps from one period to another, the individual segments aren't as tightly defined as one might think, with a feeling of an undefined bit of time passing as Chiron mulls things over before moving on to the next step. There's a nervy feeling as the camera focuses on kids' physicality as Chiron begins to realize he's gay, the adjacency to something inappropriate approximating how taboo this feels to him. The lighting will occasionally change drastically from shot to shot, creating an uncertain environment as things quite literally look different from various angles. The individual segments are well-paced, and gain power from how their careful builds give way to abrupt ends after potentially life-changing climaxes.It's no different with the moment that serves to end the film as well as that chapter in Chiron's life, only more so, a cumulative effect that serves to leave the audience excited even as the film has shaped itself into something that perhaps seems smaller in scale than the treatment afforded it. That's what the best "small" movies do, of course, and Jenkins shows he can do intimate but expansive with the best of them.
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