The holiday dry spell of movies worth watching is officially over. Lots of good films filling the theaters. I’m glad we caught Moonlight (trailer), written and directed by Barry Jenkins (III) before it faded, though maybe it will be around longer now with the Oscar Best Picture nomination. I’d seen the preview and came away asking myself, what the heck is this movie about?, instead of my usual, why did they give away so much of the story?!!
Immediately I was persuaded to see it, though, upon learning the play it’s based on was written by Tarell Alvin McCraney, whose Brothers Size plays were so powerful on the McCarter Theatre stage a couple of seasons ago. (McCraney recently received the 2017 PEN America Literary Award for a mid-career playwright!) Whatever it was about, I knew it would be worth watching. Brian Tallerico for RogerEbert.com calls it “one of the essential American films of 2016.”
In some ways it reminds me of modern (30 under 30) fiction-writing. A bit of disjointedness and a big dose of grit are part of the package. We see protagonist Chiron (pronounced Shih-RONE) at age 10 or so (Alex Hibbert), as a high school student (Ashton Sanders) negotiating tricky teenage waters in a violent environment, and finally as a young adult (Trevante Rhodes), struggling with his sexuality. While he in some ways advances, becoming more physically powerful, if still emotionally fragile, his mother (Naomie Harris) succumbs to her addictions and her sentimentality. His one lifelong friend Kevin (André Holland) cannot be the lifeline he needs.
As Mara Reinstein says in US Weekly, the movie “touches on themes of race, sexuality and isolation in ways that are rarely depicted in cinema.” A late scene with the adult Chiron and his mother, says so little in words and so much in feeling that it feels like a documentary. It doesn’t seem like actors reading lines; it’s real people struggling to connect.
The actors playing Chiron at all three ages do a stellar job. Two actors recently in very different parts in Hidden Figures appear again here: Mahershala Ali as the young Chiron’s drug dealer mentor and Janelle Monáe as his girlfriend.
Various artistic touches distinguish this film, reminding you it is a deliberately created thing. Parts of it are filmed with such super-saturated tropical heat that the stills would be like artworks in themselves. McCraney and Jenkins both grew up in Miami’s Liberty Square area, and the film carries the strength of their grip on its realities.
Rotten Tomatoes critics rating: 98%; audiences 88%.
EXTRA: The young Chiron and young Kevin (Jaden Piner) are both students of a gifted drama teacher at a Miami-area middle school, who encouraged her students to participate in the movie’s auditions, as described recently on public radio.