Movie review: Barry Jenkins’ film — a three-act drama unfolding over two decades — is about a gay black man growing up in a tough Miami neighborhood. Rating 3-and-a-half stars out of 4.
Barry Jenkins’ beautiful “Moonlight” seems to have more in common with poetry than with a typical narrative film. It’s less a story than a collection of moments, which leaves its viewer feeling moved and changed, as if you’ve spent time in someone else’s dreams and woke up understanding who they are. Based on a work by playwright Tarell Alvin McCraney (its first incarnation was lyrically titled “In Moonlight Black Boys Look Blue”), it’s a three-act drama unfolding over two decades, in which a gay black man comes of age in a tough Miami neighborhood.
We first meet Chiron as a 10-year-old nicknamed Little (Alex Hibbert); the action then moves forward to Chiron as a teen (Ashton Sanders), and finally an adult whose street name is Black (Trevante Rhodes). The child Chiron is wide-eyed and mostly silent; he’s wondering why he feels the way he does about other boys, and why his crack-addicted mother (Naomie Harris) doesn’t seem to love him. That boy vanishes into the teen, bullied at school but beginning to know what he wants, then flows into the man — who still, as an old friend tells him, “can’t say more than three words at a time.”
Movie Review ★★★½
‘Moonlight,’ with Naomie Harris, Trevante Rhodes, Mahershala Ali, Janelle Monáe, Ashton Sanders, Jharrel Jerome, Alex Hibbert. Directed by Barry Jenkins, from a screenplay by Tarell Alvin McCraney. 111 minutes. Rated R for some sexuality, drug use, brief violence, and language throughout. SIFF Cinema Egyptian, Lincoln Square.
Jenkins, who previously directed “Medicine for Melancholy,” lets the camera linger on quiet moments — a moonlit beach; a night street wet with summer rain; a head resting on a shoulder as if it’s come home — and layers on a dreamlike score (by Nicholas Britell) that seems to encompass every emotion we see on screen, from plangent strings to operatic arias to hip-hop.
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His actors, none of whom get much screen time, create indelible portraits. Mahershala Ali is riveting as a drug dealer who briefly becomes a kindly father figure for Little (there’s a lovely scene when the two go swimming, photographed like a baptism). And Harris, miles from her sleek Moneypenny in the James Bond franchise, shows us her character’s entire life in just a handful of brief scenes: hope, despair, regret, loss and, finally, in a voice old before her time, a long-awaited declaration of love. That’s what “Moonlight,” ultimately, is about: finding your voice, however quiet; finding pain; and, against all odds, finding love.