Movie Review: ‘MOONLIGHT’ – an unshakeable piece of cinema about identity

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James Cole Clay // Film Critic

MOONLIGHT | 111 min | R
Director: Barry Jenkins
Cast: Trevante Rhodes, Mahershala Ali, Andre’ Holland, Ashton Sanders, Naomi Harris, Alex Hibbert and Janelle Monae 

The great films always leave you with a question: Who are we? What does sexuality mean in 2016? What’s it like to be marginalized your entire life?

Barry Jenkins’ quietly powerful drama MOONLIGHT has been heralded as the next great film of the decade– a portrait of a man who’s searching for an identity that rarely manifests itself, but instead is huddled in a corner hanging on to any form of security.

Identity is abstract in MOONLIGHT, as the young black man Chiron is depicted in three critical points in his life. Played by three actors and known as three different nicknames, “Little” (Alex Hibbert) is roughly 10-11, then his birth name “Chiron” (Ashton Sanders) at 15-16, and “Black” (Trevante Rhodes) like a caterpillar choosing what butterfly he feels the world wants him to become as a 25-or-so-year-old.

Little lives in a world that he can’t control, so when a group of kids recognize and target his effeminate behavior he retreats, knowing that if his true self shows things will never change, which leads to a passive existence. He’s discovered by Juan (Mahershala Ali) while seeking refuge in a dope hole. Despite the mysterious stranger’s friendly presence, Little doesn’t utter a word upon meeting him, even during a fast food meal where Juan jokingly states “your ass eats, your ass speaks.”

Ali (THE PLACE BEYOND THE PINES) plays Juan with a mythic presence that lingers over the entire landscape of the film. Juan is a local drug dealer who embodies the world’s perception of masculinity from his gold grill, to his chiseled physique and onto his tricked-out car. Jenkins never let’s us know Little’s full story. We gather something happened to his father. While we don’t know his whereabouts, oddly, the missing pieces bring you in closer.

Mahershala Ali's Juan (right) teaches Alex R. Hibbert's Little (left) how to swim. Courtesy of A24.

Ali (right) teaches Hibbert (left) how to swim. Photo courtesy of A24

Groundbreaking in its character development, MOONLIGHT allows one to bring their own personal experiences into the film. Everybody has hurt in their life and that’s what makes this film so painfully beautiful in every passing moment.

Juan becomes a father figure to Little, along with his girlfriend Theresa (singer Janelle Monae). They provide a sweet escape from the trauma that awaits at home. Little’s mother, Paula (Naomi Harris), smokes crack, hangs with her boyfriend and calls the boy slurs. Not really having any friends outside of Kevin – also played by three different actors throughout (Jaden Piner, Jharrel Jerome and André Holland) – who appears throughout Chiron’s life to teaches him how to not get picked on with a sensitivity that he wants to connect with, but isn’t quite sure how to express anything friendly or romantic.

This continues into high school for Chiron (Sanders), who’s still getting harassed on a daily basis and has grown into a skinny kid with zero personal style. He’s just as much of an enigma to himself as he is to the audience. We’re pushed away from Chiron, yet the film’s emotional climate is at a high. Shot by James Laxton (YOGA HOSERS, oddly enough) with vast landscapes that capture the possibilities of Chiron’s as he moves through the balmy canvas of South Florida.

The world is a formidable environment that shapes Chiron into “Black” (an astounding Trevante Rhodes), a hustler that steps into Juan’s shoes professionally and physically. Despite his new physique, complete with biceps and six-pack abs, Black is a reserved individual refusing to participate with the world. Black’s story becomes the film’s final and strongest segment, showing he may embody the emotional violence that caused his isolation.

Rhodes shares the screen with Holland (42). Time has changed these guys, who still look at each other with the teen angst that drove them apart. Black’s gruff exterior is just a performative measure that hides everything he’s been feeling. As Kevin searches for answers we still don’t know Chiron’s true self, and neither does Black. The elegant atmosphere could crumble at any moment with thoughts about the past and fear of the future.

MOONLIGHT is an aching film filled with compassion for life. This is a celebration about self-discovery as we transition from different periods in Chiron’s life. The film isn’t an all-encompassing experience about the relationship between queerness and masculinity, nor does it have to be. The connections are effortless. Jenkin’s exceptional coming-of-age drama stays firmly planted in your mind by challenging the stilted ways of the past, causing you to look inward and reflect. It’s a moving, unshakable piece of cinema that is not to be missed.

MOONLIGHT opens in limited release today.
Dallas: Landmark Magnolia and the Angelika Film Center in Plano

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