Though not the towering masterpiece it’s being touted to be, “Moonlight” at its best is an uncommonly sensitive coming-of-age narrative, divided into three sections over multiple decades, about a young gay black man growing up in the 1980s in Miami's crack-plagued Liberty City, Fla. The film is directed by Barry Jenkins – only his second feature film – who grew up in Liberty City, as did Tarell Alvin McCraney, the MacArthur genius grant winner whose short, unproduced play, “In Moonlight Black Boys Look Blue,” Jenkins adapted. (The men did not know each other growing up.) The deep-down feeling for the Liberty City milieu is one of the film’s strongest suits: Jenkins and McCraney know these streets and these people.
The film’s three sections take their titles from the boy’s names or nicknames at successive points in his life. In the first, “Little,” he is a frightened 9-year-old boy (played by Alex R. Hibbert) who is first seen running from a gang of taunting schoolkids. He takes shelter in an abandoned crack house, where he is accidentally discovered by Juan (Mahershala Ali), a Cuban-born local drug dealer who takes the boy, who is refusing to speak, back to his home and tries, along with his girlfriend Teresa (Janelle Monáe), to get him to open up.
Little’s single mother Paula (Naomie Harris) is, we soon discover, a crack addict. Juan’s home becomes a refuge for Little and, contrary to what we may fear, the bond they share – a boy needing a father figure, a man wanting a son – does not morph into something ugly. Little isn’t abused or groomed for drug dealing. Teresa is equally caring. When Little, eating lunch with them, quietly asks the meaning of a gay slur that he has been called in school, Juan’s answer is compassionate and caring. Teresa says, “There’s nothing but love and pride in this house.”
Is it unrealistic that a man like Juan could be such a dream dad, or that his home could serve as a haven? Only if you are accustomed to the usual exploitative melodramatics that often accompany movies about African-Americans, especially those centering on drug addiction and poverty. Jenkins doesn’t ignore the plagues of Juan’s livelihood; it turns out, for example, that he supplies crack to Little’s mother. But “Moonlight,” for each of its protagonists, is about the indefinability of identity. People are not always what they seem to be.
The second section, “Chiron,” taking its title from the boy’s given name, shows him in high school, where he seems like a friendless outsider except for his childhood buddy, Kevin (Jharrel Jerome), with whom he shares a moment of tentative sexual intimacy one moonlit night at the beach. (Chiron is played by doleful-eyed Ashton Sanders.) The woeful repercussions of that intimacy incite a rage that eventually leads a decade later to the film’s third chapter, “Black,” where Chiron, nicknamed Black, and played by Trevante Rhodes, has been released from juvenile prison in Atlanta and is now a bulked-up, bling-infested drug dealer bearing no resemblance to his earlier incarnations. A call from Kevin (André Holland) in Florida prompts a wary, tender nighttime reunion between the two in a diner that Kevin owns and operates. Jenkins moves the story along with a tempo often slow-paced enough to seem trancelike. He captures the stillnesses in these people’s lives. His deliberately “poetic” approach is often at odds with the hard-edged narrative. It also serves to mythologize, to an extent, what we are seeing: When the two boys, for example, look out at a moonlit sea, the overweening sentimentality of the scene has an iconic cachet: We are being told, gently but firmly, how to feel.
The poeticization may explain why Jenkins cast three actors as Chiron who all, in varying ways, are near-mute, almost sculptural figures. If any of these actors had been encouraged to play up his emotions, the trancelike mood might have been broken. I often wish it had been. Too often “poetic” in “Moonlight” becomes “precious.” Given that this movie has at its center Chiron – with his resonant, and more often not-so-resonant, blankness – it is nevertheless the people around him who hold sway.
Full-out, richly layered acting need not clash with the mood, as triumphantly demonstrated by Ali, Harris, Holland, and Monáe. There may not be a better quartet of performances in a single movie this year.
So few unexploitative movies are made about young black men, especially young black gay men, that the overpraise for this frail, sweet, discursive fantasia is understandable – and forgivable. It’s a beautiful film around the edges. Grade: B (Rated R for some sexuality, drug use, brief violence, and language throughout.)