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The Aching Beauty Of Moonlight

Director Barry Jenkins crafts a stunning, sensitive portrayal of a boy’s fraught journey to manhood

Moonlight is a character study in three parts of a scared Miami boy as a child, a teen, and a man. It’s a coming-of-age story that admits no one ever truly comes of age. We make choices and change shapes. Yet as long as there are new choices to make and new interactions to have, we’re continually coming into focus, like the way director Barry Jenkins’s camera steps back from his trio of actors to let them decide when to lean in and be seen.

Our lead is Chiron, a mythological name that belongs to the Greek centaur and teacher who inspired legends like Achilles and Jason though he was only half-man. When we first meet him as a child, the name doesn’t fit him at all. Why should it? Kids don’t get to pick their own names, or really anything else about their lives. The neighborhood agrees: This runt is different. They call the outcast “Little,” or worse. When local heavyweight Juan (Mahershala Ali) finds the boy hiding in an abandoned drug den, he quickly senses what needs to be said. “You could be gay but you’re not letting people call you no faggot,” Juan insists later. And Little won’t do either. “At some point, you gotta make the decision for yourself who you gonna be.”

Moonlight is divided into three sections titled after his three misfit identities: Little, Chiron, and, as his buddy Kevin dubs him, Black. In the first third, Ali’s Juan — a sensitive dope-slinger with a casual confidence — stumbles into mentoring the fatherless boy, here played by a near-silent Alex Hibbert. Juan takes Little home to his girlfriend, Teresa (Janelle Monáe, good, but a bit too beatific), and takes him home in the morning, when the kid finally opens his mouth to admit where he lives.

When we see Little’s mother, Paula (Naomie Harris), a put-together woman in hospital scrubs, snatch her son away from this stranger in a gold chain and tank-top, we think we know why she’s mad. She must be scared the brute is going to screw up her kid. But appearances are deceiving. Jenkins and cowriter Tarell McCraney populate the film with seeming stereotypes: the street tough, the crack-addicted mom, the big-talking best friend. For the first hour, I wasn’t quite sure of their intention. What’s bold about these clichés? By the time teenage Chiron (Ashton Sanders, as spindly and fragile as a straw) gets chased home by school bully Terrel (Patrick Decile), Moonlight almost felt like Donald Trump’s Boschian vision of urban black life, a nightmare world without hope.

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Then, in the last section, Moonlight’s goal slides into place. Adult Chiron (Trevante Rhodes), now an intimidating drug dealer, looks nothing like the boy we knew. He’s got gold teeth and muscles on his muscles. He looks like a thug who’s stepped out of a thousand other movies, the kind of one-dimensional character who exists only as a punch line or bogeyman. But we’ve seen the lonely kid inside Chiron, and the force of will he must have had to grow up and dominate the block. Suddenly, Moonlight feels like a rebuke to every script that doesn’t see the humanity in a young black man. And it’s not only our films. It’s every politician and cop, and if audiences are brave enough to hear it, maybe ourselves, too.

People will leave Moonlight talking about what the story says about communities where there’s no template for being openly (or even privately) gay. Chiron is so disconnected from his own sexuality that he can’t even masturbate. His crush on his childhood friend, Kevin, who brags about banging chicks in the school stairwell, unspools without ever being mentioned out loud. How can it be when Chiron can’t even admit his feelings to himself? When adult Kevin (André Holland) challenges him to speak up, Chiron’s face closes down. He looks most vulnerable when he’s trying to act tough. It’s like a boxing match where the heavyweight is terrified of being hit.

Meanwhile, I was knocked over by Moonlight’s craft. It’s a technical marvel that uses every tool to get inside Chiron’s head. When he’s small, the camera shrinks, too, and looks up at the world like a lost little boy. There’s a gorgeous beach sequence where Juan teaches him to swim, and the lens dog-paddles next to them, struggling to stay afloat. Later, when his high school antagonist arranges a beat-down after lunch, the camera pivots in a circle as Terrel pushes kids out of the way to carve out enough space for Chiron to get humiliated. But every time he gets knocked down, he and the camera climb to their feet, head held higher than before. His face is bloodied and he’s clearly lost, but he looks like a hero to us. Afterward, the principal presses Chiron to press charges, and Jenkins dials down the volume of her voice until it sounds like she’s coming from another planet. She may as well be.

Jenkins has made something astonishing: a film with immaculate craft that, at the same time, feels spontaneous, even tentative, as if it could panic that it’s revealed too much and close the curtains. He finds the through line between Hibbert, Sanders, and Rhodes’s evolution — an awkward shuffle, a nervous head tilt, the childlike way he buries his fists in his pockets — so that we can both connect them as the same person while leaving enough gaps for us to imagine his life in the offscreen years between.

Moonlight’s three segments are separated by a black wall with a single colored light pulsing in the darkness. That pulse reminded me of a heartbeat, of the will to be alive. And then it reminded me that even if Chiron found the courage to live openly — if he grabbed Kevin’s hand and said, “Let’s get out of here, let’s get out of town, let’s go dancing, let’s be in love” — that even that personal triumph, that happy ending we’re aching for, turned into tragedy for the 49 gay men and women murdered this summer in the same state. Jenkins’s portrait of one life is their eulogy, too.