Think of Barry Jenkins’ “Moonlight” as an African-American variation on Richard Linklater’s “Boyhood.” It is an epic chronicle of childhood giving way to adolescence, and adolescence becoming a lonely adulthood.
The difference is that “Boyhood” was pretty much straightforward storytelling, while “Moonlight” is pure poetry. It is, in short, a genuine black art film, filled with beauty and horror, small comforts and big challenges.
Through the character of Chiron, a young Floridian played by three actors of different ages, writer/director Bennett gives us a deeply personal story which, without belaboring the point, can stand for the experiences of hundreds of thousands of young black men.
It’s not about drugs or poverty or gang life per se, and there’s no obviously political agenda (in fact white people are almost never seen), but “Moonlight” cannot help folding those socially relevant topics into its narrative.
At the same time the movie is less about facts (it’s filled with unanswered questions) than about feelings. It’s about a few seconds of blessed respite during a suffocatingly tense day, about water and sand and tropical heat, about activity fearfully captured out of the corner of one’s eye.
In one sense it’s practically documentary without the usual big dramatic speeches (the film’s protagonist is incapable of verbal grandstanding), but captured in a swirling riot of camera movement, color and conflicting sounds.
When we first meet Chiron (Alex Hibbert), or Little as he’s called by just about everyone, he’s hiding in an abandoned apartment building, having been pursued by schoolyard bullies. As his name suggests, Little is small. Also shy, withdrawn, mistrustful and uncommunicative.
He’s rescued by Juan (Mahershala Ali), the neighborhood drug lord, who provides safe escort and takes the boy to his apartment and his nurturing girlfriend Teresa (KCK native Janelle Monae, making a seemingly effortless transition from pop stardom to film acting).
Over the course of weeks and months the cocaine slinger and his woman will become Little’s surrogate parents, providing food, shelter and — as weird as it may sound — examples of more-or-less responsible adulthood. . . something painfully lacking in Little’s relationship with his increasingly drug dependent mother (Naomie Harris).
Ali (sure to be honored as a supporting actor Oscar nominee) makes of Juan a deeply complex figure. He’s a criminal, but his relationship with Little is one of selfless nurturing. Countless films have prepared us for Ali to use the kid as part of his drug business, but that never happens.
Instead he takes the boy to the beach and gently coaxes him into learning to float on the rocking waves. When Little asks, “Am I a faggot?” Juan answers with profound sincerity that Little may be gay, but he’s no faggot.
Other life lessons follow. “No place in this world ain’t got black people,” Juan declares. "We were the first people here.”
And especially: “At some point you gotta decide for yoursdrelf who you gonna be.”
The film’s second segment finds Chiron (now played by Ashton Sanders) in high school. Juan is no longer on the scene (prison? dead?) but Chiron still spends the occasional afternoon or evening with Teresa. He also returns to the beach where he first went swimming with Juan. . . the place represents hope and safety.
It is there that he has a moment with his best friend, Kevin (Jharrel Jerome), who is all boyish swagger and adolescent libido and who tries to protect Chiron from the bullying that remains a constant in his life.
This segment ends in an act of explosive violence.
Act III finds Chiron, now known as Black (Trevante Rhodes), living in Atlanta and deep in the drug trade.
The skinny kid now has a history in juvie, a bulked-up physique, a mouth of gold grillwork and plenty of tats. He’s still quiet and lonely…qualities which now contribute to his image as a threatening presence.
Most of this segment centers on a meeting with his long-ago friend Kevin (played as an adult by Andre Holland) in a Florida diner where the two young men tentatively dance around their shared and separate pasts, cautiously exposing themselves to each other.
“Who are you, man?” a puzzled Kevin asks.
Little/Chiron/Black is still painfully trying to find an answer.
Writer/director Jenkins (his only other feature is 2008’s “Medicine for Melancholy”) has a terrific eye for the small detail that reads volumes, and even in the choice of music he throws us off guard. We may expect lots of rap, but what we get are dissonant strings and moody piano tinkling. . . rap’s defiance and fierce self-assertion would be all wrong for a boy like Chiron.
“Moonlight” isn’t a conventional narrative. It keeps plenty of secrets.
But watch with an open heart and it will do a number on you.