The double-edged sword of being a critic is that it becomes very hard to be surprised by a movie. Trailers and movie news coverage means I’ll inevitably stumble along spoilers, some minor, some major. Talking with colleagues or cruising Film Twitter means I’ll be brushed by buzz for better and worse, and that’ll shape my expectations. And perhaps more formative, I’ve seen so many, many, many films as part of my work, that recognizing patterns of story, tone, and genre become automatic. So, it’s with absolute joy that I tell you writer/director Barry Jenkins’ hyped drama Moonlight surprised me. Then it rattled me to my core. And finally, it nestled snuggly inside my heart.
Based on the play In Moonlight Black Boys Look Blue by Tarell Alvin McCraney, Moonlight follows the life of a young black man in three phases. The first introduces him as “Little” (Alex R. Hibbert), a big-eyed but silent grade schooler who speeds through hostile streets of Miami, averting vicious bullies by ducking into abandoned apartments. There, the shivering boy is found by Juan (the magnificent Mahershala Ali), a kindhearted drug dealer who becomes an unlikely but welcomed father figure, teaching Little how to swim, and why the other boys call him “faggot.” (“That’s a word people use to make gay people feel bad,” Juan explains gently in the first of many poignant scenes.) While Little’s single-mom (Naomie Harris, raw and riveting) is losing her self and her compassion to drug addiction, Juan and his momma bear of a wife Teresa (Janelle Monáe, spunky and strong) step up to give Little the love he can’t find at school or home. Then we fade to high school.
Little has grown like a weed. Now called by his given name, Chiron, he is played by Ashton Sanders, whose dark eyes reflect back pain the teen boy refuses to give voice to. Though bigger, Chiron is still hunted by homophobic bullies who mock the cut of his jeans, and gang up on him in gruesome physical assaults. But none of them can cut him as deep as his first crush, which begins on a beautiful moonlit night, and ends in a school yard brawl.
Cruel twists of choice lead to Moonlight’s third and most anxiety-inducing act. We’ve seen Chiron abused by his mother and his classmates. Finally, he is grown, hard, and alone. He’s a dealer like Juan was, and he (Trevante Rhodes, hulking yet tender) goes by “Black.” Your heart may crack in two seeing the seemingly sealed fate of this sweet boy who got one bad break after another. But Jenkins’ script sends out one late-night call like a lifeline that could change everything for Chiron.
Films about LGBTQA experiences are rare. LGBTQA stories about people of color, even more so. And so, as Moonlight strolls coolly, methodically into its final moments, I had no map for where it might go. Which was both exhilarating and terrifying. After seeing so much pain for Chiron, I craved hope so intensely my heart ached, and my breath caught in my throat. The final offers the least violence and overt drama, yet all that leads up to it makes it the most impactful segment.
Since Moonlight debuted at Telluride, the buzz has been growing fast and furious. But don’t let the critical praise lull you into thinking Moonlight plays by Oscar bait rules of structure and big spotlight moments perfect for that “Best Picture” clip reel.
Jenkins’ steady and subtle hand delivers a rare protagonist, strong performances from children and adults alike, and rejects pandering monologues that’d spell out the stakes, settings, or motivations. In each phase, Chiron is defined by his silence, leaving the moody cinematography and the locked lips and striking eyes of three actors to carry his character development. It’s a gamble that pays off beautifully, demanding audiences gobble up every slow moment of discovery or hurt, every unfair indignity, and each treasured stay of grace to understand this lonely figure who desperately wants love, but has been too wounded to speak to his need.
Rich with humanity, Jenkins’ exceptional drama is a major step forward from his charming debut, 2008’s black-hipster rom-com Medicine for Melancholy. Though the setup might seemed poised for the sort of tear-jerking theatricality film festival buzz is often born from, Moonlight continues to play by its own rules, delivering a subtle but stunning finale that will shake you hard, but leave you smiling.
Moonlight is playing as part of the New York Film Festival. It will open in theaters October 21st.