“Moonlight” is a deep tragedy that’s told in passing glances. Rich with evocative images and tender exchanges, writer-director Barry Jenkins’ treatment of Tarrell Alvin McCraney’s play “In Moonlight Black Boys Look Blue” is a beautiful drama that manages to be both epic and understated. “Moonlight” explores the plight of a young black man across three eras, searching for his place in the world while struggling with his gay identity under the burdens of class and a broken family. The story’s power comes from the gaps between words — and an ongoing battle to find the right ones.
Although it’s set in and around Miami, “Moonlight” largely takes place within the confines of its young protagonist’s mind. The film opens by tracking petite adolescent Chiron (Alex Hibbert) through his shyest days, when schoolyard bullies dub him “Little.” By its second chapter, Chiron is an alienated teen (Ashton Sanders); in the modern-day finale, he has undergone a dramatic transition into young adulthood and taken on the nickname “Black” (Trevante Rhodes). But he still hasn’t quite figured out how to express his deepest feelings, and therein lies the movie’s greatest source of intrigue. Jenkins and his extraordinary cast generate powerful suspense around questions of when, and how, the repressed character might find emotional liberation.
At age nine, Little finds a prospective surrogate father in Cuban immigrant Juan (Mahershala Ali), a confident drug dealer who takes the child under his wing when he’s neglected by his drug-addled mother (Naomie Harris, ably tackling a role that could easily turn shrill). Juan’s partner Teresa (Janelle Monáe) provides the maternal support Little needs to gain a modicum of confidence, but it’s not enough to overcome problems at his real home — or at school. For that, he turns to classmate Kevin (Jaden Piner), the only boy willing to encourage Little to stand up for himself against bullies — and whose support leads the child to the first hints of sexual attraction.
Jenkins doesn’t overstate the possibility that Little might be gay. In a bracing sequence, Kevin attempts to “train” Little to fight for himself by tussling on the schoolyard, and the look on his face when that act is finished speaks volumes. That’s what faces do in “Moonlight,” where deep feelings simmer just beneath the surface.
For Little, sexuality is an alien impulse he must assess while surrounded by contradictory pressures. From a tense interrogation session, in which Little asks Juan some hard truths, to an abrupt sensual moment on the beach six years later, Chiron’s journey is filled with question marks: In a world of masculine posturing, how can — or should — he blend in?
Jenkins positions that drama within a complex web of cultural references. While never preachy, “Moonlight” offers a mesmerizing, if claustrophobic, vision of black life in America, and the confusion that results. The robust soundtrack (it samples Boris Gardiner’s “Every Nigger is a Star” and Mozart in its opening act) mirrors Chiron’s undulating worldview. His struggles climax in a heartbreaking final act that finds Chiron — now identifying as “Black,” and hiding beneath a thuggish persona replete with shiny grills — tracking down Kevin (now played by a charming André Holland), who is enduring his own isolated adulthood. In the moving climax, the film toys with romanticism as Chiron searches for the only semblance of companionship still available to him through the fog of time.
“Moonlight” synthesizes some of the best American cinema of recent years. Jenkins pairs the melancholic power of the repressed sexuality in “Brokeback Mountain” and “Carol” with the subtle textures of burgeoning masculinity in “Boyhood.” However, the film is primarily in tune with the director’s own debut, 2008’s “Medicine for Melancholy.” A scrappy, black riff on the “Before Sunrise” model that had two young San Francisco characters wandering the city and babbling about gentrification, the movie traded big plot twists for the quieter rhythms of conversation. But where its hyper-literate protagonists ultimately confronted the story’s political dimensions head-on, the marginalized figures in “Moonlight” lack such clarity. Instead, they land on poetic asides. “You just roll into the waves,” 15-year-old Kevin tells Chiron as they gaze out at sea, “just like all the other niggas.”
Indeed: Chrion’s biggest challenge is that his world moves faster than his ability to comprehend anything beyond its borders. He’s trapped by the darker impulses of a violent community, and finds no outlet other than sinking into the dysfunction. Though “Moonlight” lacks the levity to convey every nuance of its characters’ existence, it excels at exploring the need to express genuine affection in environments that smothers the possibility. “Moonlight” is less a gay movie than an embodiment of feeling out of place across pivotal moments in American history. Its backdrop acknowledges everything from the War on Drugs to gangsta rap to the conflicting sentiments of modern times, but Chiron’s world is a solitary one. “I cry so much I could turn into drops,” he admits, and it’s one of the few times when he seems wise beyond his years.
Complemented by cinematographer James Laxton’s smooth camerawork, “Moonlight” captures a series of moods as if they were stanzas: Jenkins finds elegance in shadowy exchanges at late-night street corners bathed in yellow and black, then finds similarly expressive qualities at an all-night diner. His filmmaking is a grab bag of meaningful details, but there’s no doubting the confidence of a storyteller in full control of the material.
Such an eye-opening entry in the ever-neglected arena of black cinema arrives at a critical moment — the tail-end of the Obama era, when diversity has become a keyword and discussions of racial turmoil have reached a fever pitch. “Moonlight” transforms rage and frustration into unadulterated intimacy. In this mesmerizing portrait of a suffocating world, the only potential catharsis lies in acknowledging it as Chiron so deeply wishes he could. Despite the somber tone, “Moonlight” is a beacon of hope for the prospects of speaking up.
“Moonlight” premiered at the Telluride Film Festival. It opens theatrically on October 21.