Moonlight (A24, R)

It’s always tough to make a film with a passive central character, and that problem is compounded in this film by the restricted range of the young actors.

moonlight

Growing up isn’t easy for anyone, but if you’re the kid everyone picks on, it’s just that much worse. That’s the situation of 10-year-old Chiron, a.k.a. Little (Alex Hibbert): When we first meet him, he’s running away from a pack of boys, finally finding refuge in a warehouse. After breaking a window in a final gesture of aggression, the gang runs away, leaving Chiron cowering until discovered by the kindly Juan (Mahershala Ali). This turns out to be Chiron’s lucky day, because Juan first buys him a meal, and then takes him home where his girlfriend Teresa (Janelle Monáe) gives Chiron the attention and understanding he’s been missing at home. We later learn Juan is a drug dealer, but he’s also clearly a good person, making him one of several characters in this film whose portrayal runs contrary to easy stereotypes.

The next day, we learn that Chiron lives with his mother in a dilapidated townhouse that compares poorly with Juan’s spacious and comfortable house. His mother, Paula (Naomi Harris), is an overworked nurse who has good intentions, but is constantly exhausted and finds escape in men and drugs. Chiron has become uncommonly self-sufficient for his age—at one point, we see him making a bubble bath by heating water on the stove and adding dish soap—but not self-aware enough to realize the source of his harassment at school is that the other boys perceive him as gay (they call it “soft”). His best friend Kevin (Jaden Piner) tries to clue him in, but it doesn’t help all that much, because the truth is that Chiron is not enough of an actor to pretend that he’s something he’s not.

Barry Jenkin’s Moonlight looks at the life of Chiron in three distinct time periods—childhood, adolescence, and adulthood—separated by abrupt jumps and covering about 15 years in all. Chiron’s adolescence is an extension of his childhood, as he remains a target of bullying while his mother disappears further and further into the black hole of addiction. This segment ends with one of the most effective scenes in the entire film, setting the stage for Chiron’s transformation from a scrawny victim to a luxuriantly muscled adult in the mold of his surrogate father, Juan.

Although not a first film, Moonlight often feels like one, with unnecessary cinematic flourishes, lack of concern for establishing the time period for each segment (honestly, the age of the actor playing Chiron is the main clue as to how much time has passed), complete misses in matters of period detail (possibly there just wasn’t the time or budget to attend to it), and the use of a number of young actors who come off poorly in comparison with the professional adult actors. It’s always tough to make a film with a passive central character, and that problem is compounded in this film by the restricted acting range of the actors playing Chiron in the first two time periods.

Balanced against that is the fact that Moonlight is telling a story not often seen in American movies. It also has many good moments, with some of the best coming in quiet passages when the camera is still and we can focus on the interactions of the characters. The music by Nicholas Britell is also quite interesting, and cinematographer James Laxton comes up with some memorable shots to balance some really annoying ones. Finally, there’s a beautiful moment near the end of the film that really works, when the adult Chiron (Trevante Rhodes) reconnects with Kevin (André Holland)—enough to make you glad you sat through this film’s less effective moments. | Sarah Boslaugh

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