I’m not sure an affluent septuagenarian honky has any business commenting at length on this blistering competitor for best film of the year. Writer/director Barry Jenkins’ has adapted playwright Tarell McCraney’s In Moonlight, Black Boys Look Blue into a Rorsach test for audiences, whose reactions and interpretations may say more about viewers that it will about what’s viewed. There’s nothing easy about this nearly two hour journey through the life of a young American black man, bewildered by the adults in his life as a youngster, excruciatingly humiliated by his peers as an adolescent and then agonizingly coaxed into a single healthy relationship when he matures into a glowering drug dealer in adulthood. With its deliberately muffled, racially charged dialogue and bluntly edited scenes, Moonlight screams its depiction of black underclass life and the toll it extracts, especially on black males.
Jenkins divides his film into a trio of segments, using the slang names given the protagonist for each of the three phases of life described above. As a child, Chiron (pronounced Shy-ron) must deal with his single mother, whose obvious affection for him comes laced with drug-induced behaviors that leave him bewildered and fearful. When he’s befriended by Juan, a local drug dealer, (who may be his mom’s supplier) Chiron hears this harsh but accurate advice about being on his own; “You’re gonna have to decide for yourself what you want to be. Nobody’s gonna do that for you.”
As an adolescent, the shy, gangly Chiron endures nearly endless taunts from a host of his classmates, enduring the ultimate betrayal when Kevin, his only friend gets pressured into inflicting a vicious beating on Chiron in an informal gang initiation. Chiron’s response to Kevin and the thug responsible for inducing Kevin’s behavior takes Chiron off the streets of south Florida and into life in a juvenile detention center.
Released from custody where he’s body-built himself into intimidating physical perfection, Chiron takes up adult life as drug dealer, adopting the same behaviors with which he was surrounded growing up. Only a chance encounter with his old friend Kevin hints at the price Chiron’s paid for surviving into adulthood…
As the drug-dealing Juan who takes the young Chiron under his wing, Mahershala Ali (House of Cards, The Hunger Games) demonstrates what a powerful attraction a kind-hearted criminal can have for an impressionable child forced to deal with adult themes well before their appropriate time. Ali’s screen presence is undeniable and he seduces the audience as he wins Chiron’s heart before inexplicitly disappearing from Moonlight’s storyline. Ali’s dominant role in the first third of Moonlight is book-ended by Andre Holland’s seductively attractive presence as the adult Kevin in the movie’s final chapter. Holland’s role as the brilliant, seething surgeon in T.V. series The Nick and a subsequent role in Selma mark him as an actor of unusual range which he deploys in Moonlight’s final scenes in which his winsome analysis of his own life journey finally offers Chiron a way out of his painfully self-administered isolation.
Jenkins cinematic skills pale in comparison to his abilities as a screenwriter; with a few isolated exceptions, the scenes in Moonlight reflect a modest budget and little of the visual subtle nuance with today's typical Hollywood product. But make no mistake; what Moonlight may lack (intentionally or not) in technical sophistication, it more than makes up for in emotional impact.
The Verdict? See it; whether you'll identify with it’s contents or not, you will be profoundly moved.
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